Of the big three synth makers, Korg seems to be the most fond of taking chances and delivering exotic products that surprise and delight. Their Kaoss Pad and Kaossilator virtually created a new category of realtime effects for DJs and producers, while their Nano series showed that tiny MIDI controllers could be serious musical tools. When they announced a true analog synth that fits in your pocket, with a real MS-20 filter that accepts external signals, for well under $100, we just about fainted.
The first thing that grabbed us about the Monotron is how freakin’ tiny it is—not much bigger than a large smartphone. Instead of keys, there’s a ribbon with an 18-note keyboard printed on it. Think “21st century Stylophone” and you’ve got the idea. Playing the keyboard with your fingers is possible, but since the entire surface is a ribbon, this can be a trifle awkward for the thicker-fingered. The best bet for accuracy is to use a stylus (got an old Palm Pilot or Treo handy?), which isn’t included with the Monotron.
The bottom line here is obviously the sound, and the Monotron does not disappoint. Its voice architecture is simplicity itself: a sawtooth oscillator, a resonant lowpass filter, and a straight-up gate VCA envelope. An LFO can be routed to either pitch or filter cutoff. Interestingly, the LFO wave is a sawtooth, not a standard-issue triangle or sine, which leads to some cool results that help define the Monotron’s sonic character. For example, when applied to pitch, the LFO delivers vintage Steve Miller swoops that will have you reaching for your dad’s vinyl collection. On the other hand, when applied to filter cutoff, especially with a dollop of juicy resonance, the results veer into Roland TB-303 territory. This should keep electronica fans happy for days. That alone would be cool enough, but the LFO rate also extends well into the audio frequency range, allowing for FM insanity that you’d never expect from a package this size.
The pitch knob has a massive range, from subsonic sawtooth clicks all the way up to cochlea-shredding highs. Throttle down the filter cutoff and lower the pitch and you can whip up wobbly tech and electro bass lines. Raise the cutoff all the way and increase the pitch to the upper octaves, and you’ve got that “crazy bees” sound that keeps Benny Benassi fans coming back for more.
Then there’s the external input jack. This is a 1/8" affair, so you may need an adapter. The fact that Korg managed to cram real analog outboard filtering into a box this size and price is nothing short of astonishing. Just to be ironic, I ran my vintage Casio VL-Tone into the Monotron and had a grand old time turning the two into my very own nano-modular coffee table synth.
Again, Korg delivers a must-have gadget with true musical usefulness— at a price that makes it the perfect stocking stuffer, not to mention a Key Buy.
PROS Analog. Same filter as vintage Korg MS-10 and MS-20 synths. Audio input for processing other instruments and semi-modular applications. Audio-range modulation of filter and oscillator.
CONS Thicker fingers may have a hard time playing the ribbon keyboard accurately.
PRICE List: $90.00
Approx. street: $60.00