All Volcas share the same exterior design, but with
different panels. Each has a touch panel for entering notes or drum
hits; it’s a little wider on the Volca Keys to allow for a chromatic
keyboard. All three include the same connectors at the top of the
faceplate: power supply jack, MIDI in, voltage clock in and out, and a
1/8” headphone jack. This serves double duty as the main output
(monaural, though the jack is TRS stereo).
You get eight memory slots for storing your sequences and
each sequence can be one measure in length. There’s no pattern chaining
for song creation, and given the lack of MIDI output, no ability to
export sequences to another medium—to capture your explorations, you
record audio into your DAW. In practice, I didn’t find this to be a
My only real gripe is that no Volca has any sort of swing
or shuffle. A workaround for iOS users is to use Korg’s free app,
SyncKontrol. In addition to turning your iPhone or iPad into a master
clock—with adjustable swing—by connecting its headphone out to any
Volca’s sync input, it also provides WIST integration between the Volcas
and Korg’s iPad synths. Let’s look at each Volca in more detail.
Korg Volca Beats
The Volca Beats’ sequencing tools are intuitive if you’ve
ever used a hardware drum machine. You can tap in patterns in real
time, with sixteenth-note quantization baked in (and impossible to turn
off). If you’re a fan of step sequencing, you’ll love the vintage
TR-style interface for programming grooves one drum at a time.
The first thing that grabbed me about the Volca Beats is that it feels
retro, reminding me somewhat of a Roland TR-909. Like the 909, the
Volca Beats is a hybrid drum machine. That is, some sounds are generated
via analog synthesis while others are sample-based. This gives the unit
a very distinct sound that covers a lot of ground.
The analog side focuses squarely on kick, snare, a pair
of toms, and closed and open hi-hat. Vintage fans familiar with the
TR-808 sound will be in heaven here, considering that the kick and snare
feature nearly identical tone-shaping features and sound quite similar.
The kick includes three parameters: Click, Pitch, and
Decay. From tight, clicky, electropop taps to gargantuan subsonic hums
suited to hip-hop and drum-and-bass music, this kick is an absolute
The snare features three similar adjustments—Snappy,
Pitch, and Decay—making it quite versatile. The core sound is a short,
tom-like tone which can be tuned with the Pitch knob. The Snappy knob
adjusts the volume of a noise-like component, while Decay governs the
overall duration. Personally, I preferred the snare to have lots of snap
and a short decay, but if you lower the Snappy parameter to minimum,
you can use the snare as a third tom or conga, which is great for subtly
The dual toms include Pitch for each and a Decay
parameter that affects both. These elements absolutely nail that early
Roland sound, including the CR-78 and TR-808, and of course, the classic
The open and closed hi-hat feature individual Decay knobs
for dialing in everything from percussive ticks to those long-ringing
ride cymbals. There’s also a Grain knob that “tunes” the metallic aspect
of the hat. At medium to high levels, everything sounds fittingly
familiar. At its lowest settings, there’s a dirty electronic flavor
that’s well suited to IDM and experimental styles.
On the sample-based side are four sounds: clap, clave,
agogo, and crash. Each can be independently tuned via the Volca’s PCM
knob, and the tuning range is absolutely massive. When set near the
middle, each drum sounds appropriate (though the crash sounds more like a
human breath than anything resembling a cymbal). At extremely low
tunings, the sounds get nasty and bit-crushed—perfect for industrial
flourishes. At the top of the range, you get clicks and taps that are
fantastic for tech-house top loops.
The Volca Beats includes a stutter effect that’s actually
much closer to a delay than it is to Ableton’s Beat Repeat or iZotope’s
Stutter Edit, but I’m splitting hairs here. In practice, it’s handy for
a wide range of effects from tight room reverbs to reggae dub repeats,
and it can be applied to individual drums or all of them as whole.
Once you’ve whipped up a one-bar groove via either
playing or step entry, you can manipulate it in musical ways. To tinker
with the sequence itself, you can use the innovative Active Step and
Step Jump options, which toggle steps on or off on the fly. Among their
many uses is quickly switching from a driving half-bar loop to the full
measure and then back. The caveat is that these realtime tricks can’t be
Several other performance moves can be recorded.
The stutter effect knobs can be played in real time and embedded into
your sequence, either globally or on a single drum. Twists of the PCM
Pitch knob can be recorded for each of the sampled drums individually.
Personally, I loved this option, as it allows for either Kraftwerkian
rising patterns or swoopy Sebastien Léger weirdness.
After a few days of playing with the Volca Beats, I had the basis for an entirely new track and
a bunch of techy top loops for adding to some of my existing projects.
When a product immediately becomes a part of my workflow, I know I have a
winner on my hands.
Next: Volca Keys
Korg Volca Keys
From the sheer number of knobs covering the front panel,
its clear that despite its tiny size, the Volca Keys is a serious synth.
It’s polyphonic, to boot.
The touch panel is a 27-note (F to G)
chromatic keyboard for inputting your sequences. In a studio, I’d
recommend using a full-sized keyboard via MIDI as this really makes the
synth come alive, but the touch panel does the trick for mobile
composition. The white keys do double-duty for accessing sequencing
features and a few LFO parameters.
Programming sequences into the Volca Keys is pleasingly
straightforward. There’s even a metronome. Unlike with the Volca Beats,
you can turn off quantization (Flux mode in Korg parlance) if you have a
riff that’s more fluid than a standard sixteenth-note pattern.
The Volca Keys’ oscillator controls deliver a ton of
sonic variety in a very direct manner. For starters, a six-option knob
changes the overall oscillator configuration. The “Poly” position puts
the unit into single-oscillator mode with three independent sawtooth
voices sharing the same filter. “Unison” stacks all three oscillators
for big detuned leads. “Octave” and “Fifth” give you a pair of detunable
sawtooth waves with the top note an octave or fifth up. The other two
modes offer ring modulation, with “Unison Ring” delivering a Volca
version of that Minimoog square wave lead and “Poly Ring” a
single-oscillator square that dissolves into madness when additional
notes are played.
Each of the six modes interacts with the VCO detune knob
in various ways, ranging from subtle thickening to atonal mayhem,
especially in conjunction with the ring mod modes. The VCO section also
includes a portamento and envelope depth controls.
The Volca filters are based on the ultra-rare MiniKorg
700S, which gives them a flavor that’s a bit different from the
Monotrons and the MS-20 Mini. It’s still a two-pole, 12dB-per-octave
affair, but with a more aggressive resonance.
As to modulation, the Volca Keys includes all of the
essentials, including an ADS envelope (decay and release are tied to one
knob) and an LFO with saw, triangle and square waves that can modulate
both pitch and cutoff with separate amounts for each. The LFO also
includes a nifty trick from the Monotribe: You can set it to retrigger
with each event, which means that at slow rates with a sawtooth or
triangle wave, it can be used as an extra pseudo-envelope. Nice touch.
Like the Volca Beats “stutter” effect, the Keys version
includes an integrated delay with independent control over time and
feedback. Even though it’s a digital delay, there’s something warm and
crunchy about it, like an old-school rack unit. With extremely long
times, the highs get duller in a very musical way and with shorter times
and high feedback, you can hear a touch of sample aliasing. Purists
might complain, but you can always run the Volca Keys through an
outboard effect. For my part, I’m glad that Korg left all that crunchy
character in place.
Automation is where the Volca Keys blew me away. Every
knob, except resonance, oscillator mode, octave and tempo, can be
automated and recorded—including the delay parameters. Since the Volcas
only support one-bar sequences, that means wiggly, morphing grooviness
is baked right in. Little filter moves, LFO sweeps, and bits of delay
are a piece of cake and fun to use. This makes the Volca Keys capable of
some truly interesting riffs that are absolutely dance floor ready.
As a MIDI synth, the Volca Keys is a fantastic addition
to a bedroom studio, and the three-voice polyphony makes it the most
affordable analog polysynth for the foreseeable future. As a groovebox,
it’s irresistible for everything from synth-pop to bangin’ electro,
especially with its ability to automate nearly every parameter. Overall,
the Volca Keys’ sonic scope is astonishing.
Next: Volca Bass and audio examples for all three Volcas
Korg Volca Bass
With its brushed aluminum front panel and overall knob
styling, the Volca Bass is reminiscent of the legendary Roland TB-303,
with the notable enhancement of having up to three synchronized
note sequences playing simultaneously through its filter and envelope—a
serious advantage for getting complex synth patterns out of a single
It is a bit difficult to get the hang of inputting
sequences. If you devote an evening or two to experimenting, with the
manual in front of you, it can be thoroughly mastered. But with so many
of its tabs serving double duty, up to three discrete note sequences
running at once, and (unlike the Volca Keys) no metronome, things can be
a little confusing at first. On the other hand, one of the coolest
things about the Volca Bass is precisely that it’s not entirely
predictable, especially when you add in the ability to slide your finger
across its key tabs as though they were a ribbon. This makes those
classic “acid” riffs a heck of a lot easer to whip up than on a 303.
The Volca Bass can also stack up to three oscillators on a
single note. Each oscillator includes a choice of square or sawtooth,
with a dedicated tuning knob that works as a detune function between 10
and 2 o’clock, plus semitone tuning (up to 12 steps in either direction)
outside that range.
If you don’t want to stack all three oscillators on a
single riff, two alternate options separate the oscillators in unusual
ways. One mode stacks the first two oscillators on a single sequence,
for detuning effects or interval riffs like major thirds or fifths. The
other, mentioned earlier, lets all three oscillators work independently,
including their tuning, waveforms, and note sequences. This is just
massive bang for buck.
The rest of the synth engine is quite simple, with a
resonant lowpass filter processing all three oscillators. Vintage synth
fans take note: Like the Volca Keys, this filter is based on the
MiniKorg-700S, not the TB-303, so while it’s very capable of screeching
acid resonance, it’s not meant to be an exact clone of the Roland sound.
Still, it sounds wonderfully aggressive.
For modulation, an LFO can be routed to pitch, amp, or
cutoff. You get a basic attack-decay envelope with switchable sustain
(release and decay are tied, like on a Minimoog). The envelope can also
modulate the filter cutoff, naturally.
Unlike the Volca Beats and Volca Keys, the knobs on the
Volca Bass can’t be automated within a sequence. If you want the Volca
Bass to play evolving modulated riffs without twisting knobs yourself,
the LFO does a great job when set to a moderately slow rate and applied
to the filter.
By turning all three oscillators on, then tuning each to a
different note interval, it’s ridiculously easy to create parallel
chord stab riffs. Tune them to a minor triad with a short filter
envelope, and you’ve got instant Detroit techno. Big fun indeed.
Of the three Volcas, the Bass requires the most
commitment. “Intuitive” is not a word I’d use here, but the same has
been said countless times about the TB-303, which is still one of the
most sought-after vintage synths out there. The Volca Bass doesn’t sound
exactly like a 303, but it does share the same soul—only with three
times the brains. That makes it one of the most exotic sounding analog
groove synths ever made.