No matter your musical skill level, Korg makes an instrument that’s perfect for you. Legends like Brian Eno, LCD Soundsystem and The Chemical Brothers use Korg’s high-end synths and effects in recording and live performances. But over the last decade, they’ve also made an array of products geared to amateur musicians and hobbyists looking to make electronic noise simply by dragging their finger over a touchscreen or twiddling some dials.
With their current crop of devices, it’s hard to tell how much musicianship is required to make them work. So I decided to put them to the ultimate test: have my staff play them without reading any directions.
BTRtoday staff writers Elena Childers, Taia Handlin and Joe Virgillito aren’t musicians. But they’re music lovers and fast learners. I wanted to see how they’d take to Korg products that straddle the line between instrument and toy. I let them loose on five Korg instruments: a variety of Korg Volcas (Volca Beats, Volca FM, Volca Sample and Volca Kick) and a Monologue analogue synthesizer keyboard.
While the Monologue’s piano keyboard makes it easy to spot as an instrument, the purpose of the Volcas is harder to immediately discern. While they vary slightly in design, the Volcas are plastic rectangles gridded with knobs and buttons and lined with easy-to-miss piano keyboard ribbons. But once you realize a Volca is an instrument, you’re seconds away from playing it. You don’t need musical training to coax sounds from them. Their blips, beeps and beats are ready at the touch of a button or the turn of a knob.
Out of the box, Volcas encourage orderly musical statements. Volcas come with a thin cord with a headphone jack connector on both sides. The cords’ sync ports have prime real estate at each Volca’s upper right hand corner for reasons that quickly become obvious: Volcas are meant to be connected and work together. Once connected, automated melodies from the Sample and FM lineup with each other and match the beats from the rhythm-oriented Beats and Kick. Change the tempo on a Kick and the Sample it’s connected to changes pace accordingly.
Within minutes of powering them up and connecting them, I had the Volcas playing something that sounded like boilerplate house music. It wasn’t great—no one would have mistaken it for Daft Punk. But when you consider I’d only taken the Volcas out of their boxes second beforehand, it’s startling.
To gauge how intuitive Volcas are to play, I gave them to my staff without instructions. As you can see in the video below, the barrier to musical expression was low.
I wasn’t able to play the Monologue before the test video shoot. Because of its keyboard, I worried that people would have to know how to play piano to get it to work. That fear turned out to be unfounded. It’s a monophonic keyboard, meaning you can only play one note at a time—you can create simple melodies just traveling up and down the keys. Moreover, just like the Volcas, you can skip the keyboard altogether. With little prompting, the Monologue played simple musical phrases, allowing my writers to sculpt sounds by flicking switches, turning knobs and pressing buttons.
Our test-run barely scratched the surface of the Monologue’s and the Volcas’ potential. While the Korg devices look minimal, they offer a feast of options for creating and manipulating electronic sounds. As of this time of writing, I don’t know how to create samples with the Sample or the purpose of the big row of buttons on the bottom of the Monologue.
According to a famous video game designer saying, video games should ideally be easy to learn but difficult to master. Consciously or not, Korg seems to make instruments that act the same way.