The microKORG XL combines the sound of Korg's R3 and the portability of the original microKORG with amazingly playable new mini-keys.
When I reviewed the original microKORG in the November 2003 issue (see emusician.com/elecinstruments/emusic_korgmicrokorg/), I raved about its sound and portability but groused about its keyboard and controls. Korg followed up with the R3, featuring full-sized keys, an informative display, a better mic and an even richer sound derived from the Korg Radias. The R3 was bulkier, though, and couldn't run on batteries.
With the microKORG XL ($499), Korg aims to blend portability and power. It offers almost all of the R3's synthesis and vocoding features in a battery-powered box with better mini-keys, mic and display than the older microKORG (see Web Clip 1); it also gains a USB port. Six years have produced enough design refinements to make it feel like a fresh instrument.
At just 4.4 pounds (without batteries), the XL is even lighter than its predecessor. Its textured plastic case has a peculiar flange that makes it look like a melted Fender Rhodes, but it's sturdy; the keyboard survived a flight that shattered some wooden items in my suitcase. I wish the case had pegs for a guitar strap, though.
The back panel offers left and right line outputs, a headphone output and a monophonic line input — all ¼-inch. As on the original microKORG, the input can feed the vocoder (see Web Clip 2) or substitute for one oscillator. The XL comes with an R3-quality mic, and a switch toggles the input to an XLR jack on top. Rounding out the panel are jacks for MIDI In and Out, USB (for MIDI only, not audio) and a wall-wart power supply, but no sustain pedal jack. The XL can run about four hours on six AA batteries, though it can't be powered by USB.
Dominating the front panel are two detented knobs for selecting from eight genres (vintage synth, rock/pop, R&B, fusion, etc.) and eight subcategories (poly synth, bass, lead, arpeggio, pad, keyboard, sound effect and vocoder). A switch calls up a second memory bank, for a total of 128 program locations. You can store any kind of sound in any slot, but being able to quickly flip through 16 basses, 16 leads and so on is efficient. Unlike the original, the XL shows names for each program and the current tempo on its backlit LCD.
I was glad to see a dedicated Tempo knob for controlling the arpeggiator and tempo-synched LFOs and effects. It's hard to dial in a precise value, but if you hold the Shift button and flick the octave-shift lever left or right, it will change the tempo by 1 bpm. That undocumented trick works in Edit mode, too, which is really fiddly otherwise because the XL gives you three non-detented knobs to control the discrete settings for page, parameter and value. You can edit much faster with the included Mac- and Windows-based editor because this is a deep synth. The three knobs are handy for performance gestures, though, and the presets map them to useful and surprising parameters (see Web Clip 3).
The biggest surprise was how playable the new Natural Touch keys are. They're still tiny, but they have a welcome snap and a pleasing velocity response (with eight velocity curves). The black keys, whose stiffness drove me nuts on the original microKORG, are dramatically improved. Playing fast chromatic runs was no problem.
The XL synth engine features two oscillators and a noise source routed to two multimode filters, a waveshaper (for unique distortion) and a VCA. This block, which Korg calls a Synth, then feeds a 2-band EQ, becoming a Timbre. Two Timbres — individually controllable over MIDI — feed two effects processors derived from Korg's KAOSS pads (no reverb, alas). The oscillators play a variety of sampled, analog-modeled and synthesized waveforms, and can modulate each other in numerous ways. The downloadable manual has details, along with an unusual number of tips for exploring sounds. The bottom line is that the XL can produce far more sounds than are suggested by its presets and shape them expressively.
So is the microKORG XL the ideal blend of R3 and original microKORG? It's really another tempting choice in the continuum: Korg will continue to sell all three. The original microKORG holds down the affordable end, the XL adds synthesis power and better controls, and the R3 offers the biggest engine and keys. Korg product specialist James Sajeva described it as a “good, better, best” lineup, but for those who crave sound and portability, I think the XL will be huge.
Overall rating (1 through 5): 4