Korg’s volca line of affordable, battery-powered grooveboxes has become a staple in electronic production since their introduction in late 2013. With previous models offering analog drums, bass, leads, as well as sample playback, the product line covers a lot of ground. This year, Korg surprised everyone with the introduction of a brand new unit: The volca fm, a three-voice FM synth that includes feature parity with Yamaha’s legendary DX-7.
Cosmetically, the volca fm is more or less identical to its predecessors, with a cheeky nod to the original DX-7’s brown and turquoise color scheme. Other volca amenities, like analog voltage sync, DIN MIDI input, and an intuitive step-sequencer are in place as well, allowing seamless integration with the other grooveboxes. I recently took the volca fm out for a spin and here’s my take.
The volca fm’s knobs and sliders deliver real-time control over several genuinely relevant FM parameters, such as attack and decay/release for one carrier and one modulator. If you’re new to FM, this means you can quickly adjust both the amplifier envelope (the carrier) and the timbre envelope (the modulator). In addition, there’s a dedicated knob for selecting the FM algorithm, instantly giving you 32 variations for each of the unit’s 16 presets.
Other real-time controls include rate and depth for the pitch LFO, and sliders for both velocity and octave range. The velocity slider is another source of instant gratification as higher levels increase the overall intensity of the modulators in a given preset. That is, raising the slider gives a brighter, often harsher, sound as well as allowing quick editing for the velocities of your sequenced notes. And if the sound of real FM is a tad thin for your tastes, there’s a chorus unit for thickening it up.
In addition to the real-time features, you can also access almost every DX-7 parameter—including envelopes and levels for all six operators—via deeper editing tools. While this is an extraordinary level of detail for a paperback-sized groovebox, the parameter select interface is a bit like trying to repair a Swiss watch wearing mittens. Fortunately, the volca’s full compatibility with the DX-7 also means that you can edit its parameters via SysEx. While Korg doesn’t offer its own software editor, the company recommends Snoize SysEx librarian (snoize.com). I also grabbed a copy of the freeware Dexed VST, which supports bidirectional DX-7 SysEx. With it, I was able to edit all of the parameters and transmit patches with zero hiccups.
The sequencer is identical to what you find in the other volca products, with a welcome expansion to 16 sequence slots. You can record in either step or real-time, overdub motion sequences (Korg’s term for parameter automation), and adjust various step attributes on-the-fly. In conjunction with the unit’s knobs, I was able to sequence some very dramatic timbral shifts. In fact, at slower tempos, the volca fm is wonderful for ambient and experimental approaches to FM, like Radiohead’s “Idioteque.” On the performance side, the volca sequencer is also capable of changing the sequence length, step duration, and active steps as a sequence plays; great for keeping things dynamic in a live gig. Thanks to its voltage trigger input and MIDI sync, you can incorporate it into a wide assortment of rigs (including Ableton Link) without missing a beat.
FM You Can Carry
On its own, the volca fm is a powerful little synth that’s basically a three-voice DX-7 with real-time control over useful parameters. Paired with the freeware Dexed plug-in, it’s an FM powerhouse that will satisfy both vintage synth nerds and dance music producers looking for that hard-edged FM growl. Either way, it’s an absolute Key Buy for any studio or live rig.
Pros Comprehensive FM architecture based on the original DX-7. Real-time control of useful FM parameters. Imports DX-7 patches over MIDI SysEx. Sequencer includes parameter automation.
Cons Three-voice polyphony.
A DX-7 that fits in your backpack.