Korg has been pushing the envelope in the analog synth world by offering great-sounding instruments at remarkably low prices, such as the Monotron and Volca Series, as well as reissuing classic designs such as the MS-20 and ARP Odyssey (albeit in desktop sizes).
This year the company has gone a step further with the minilogue, a 4-voice keyboard polysynth that streets below $500 (see video below). But rather than rely on previous designs, Korg created much of the circuitry in the minilogue from scratch, with both desktop and stage use in mind.
Each of the four minilogue voices has two oscillators offering square, triangle, and sawtooth waveforms, as well as a noise source. Through the use of phase switching in the design, you can alter the waveshape of each oscillator with the Shape control and add harmonic content.
To further enhance the waveforms, VCO 1 can frequency-modulate VCO 2 using the Cross Mod Depth knob, and you can switch in ring modulation: The ring mod and FM features are heard through VCO 2's mixer channel. Furthermore, the phase of oscillator 2 can be synchronized to oscillator 1 with the Sync switch, and you can alter the pitch of VCO 2 with the envelope generator using the Pitch EG Int knob—positive excursions when the knob is set clockwise, and an inverted shape when the knob is turned counter-clockwise. The synth provides two 4-stage envelope generators; one for the VCA and the other for modulation purposes.
The minilogue's LFO offers ramp, triangle, and square waves and is surprisingly flexible: It can modulate the pitch of VCO 2, filter cutoff, or the shape of the two oscillators. In addition to providing rate and depth (intensity) knobs, the minilogue lets you modulate the rate or intensity level of the LFO using the EG—very handy!
According to its designer, the minilogue's resonant filter uses Norton amps that are tuned to complement the oscillators. You can set it to a 2- or 4-pole response and select how much key tracking and velocity influence the frequency cutoff (0, 50%, 100%). Knobs are provided for the cutoff frequency, resonance, and the degree to which the EG alters the cutoff frequency.
The minilogue's rear panel includes a mono audio input (for processing external sounds), a mono output and a headphone jack. MIDI is available over DIN and USB connectors. The synth also includes minijack I/O that allows you to synchronize the internal sequencer with external gear.
The minilogue's velocity-sensitive, 37-note keyboard has the desktop-friendly mini keys that have become increasingly common. Nonetheless, the instrument is easy to play, solidly built, and, at just over 6lbs., lightweight.
SOUND IN MOTION
If Korg had stopped there with the design, it would already have a great-sounding synth on its hands. However, the minilogue also includes the aforementioned sequencer, an arpeggiator, a handful of voice playback modes, and a delay.
The delay has a built in highpass filter (with frequency cutoff control) that you can apply to both the source and delayed signal or just the delayed sound. The audio quality of the delay is reminiscent of Korg's Monotron Delay ribbon synth; a bit noisy, but an old-school vibe that works well and is fun to dial into a patch.
The 16-step sequencer can be programmed in real time or in step mode, and your sequence is stored with the selected patch. You can set the step length and resolution, gate length, swing amount, and use the Motion Sequencer to record four knob and switch movements. Using Knob edit mode, you can set whether the parameter you change jumps immediately to the physical position of the knob, changes once you pass the current setting, or changes relative to the physical position of the knob.
The synth comes with a 100 presets, many of which lean toward modern dance-music styles. Presets authored by Richard Devine and Jimmy Edgar are included. You can easily modify the factory patches, or build your own using the 100 additional memory slots with basic Init patches. Any eight patches can be assigned to the Favorites list for easy recall.
The minilogue's display not only shows you patch names and editing parameters but acts as an oscilloscope so you can view the wave shape as you play. It even shows the waveform of the audio input—very cool.
One of the most musically interesting aspects of the user interface is the implementation of the eight voice-allocation modes, each of which determines how the voices are utilized in a patch. Although each patch has a specific voice allocation saved with it, you can change it at the touch of a button. Practically speaking, this gives you eight playback options for each patch. That's a nice benefit because a patch will sound slightly different in each mode, leading you to some surprising discoveries.
The voice allocation modes are Poly for polyphonic playing; Duo mode, which stacks pairs of voices to give you 2-note polyphony; Unison, which creates a monosynth by stacking all four voices in unison; Mono, another monosynth sound, but with voices 2 and 3 available as sub oscillators; Chord mode is monophonic, but each key plays the four voices simultaneously as a chord (14 chord choices are available); Delay mode cascades voices 2, 3, and 4 after voice 1 is played; Arp is the arpeggiator with a 4-octave range; and Sidechain mode lowers the volume of a previously played voice once a new voice is played.
Important aspects of each mode can be changed using the Voice Mode Depth knob, so you don't have to go menu diving to, say, choose which chord is played in Chord mode or to change the type of arpeggiation pattern. Unfortunately, you cannot combine voice allocation modes; for example, you cannot use Chord mode with the arpeggiator. You can, of course, use the sequencer with any of the modes.
Another performance-oriented control is the angled pitch bend/modulation control. Situated above the lower notes of the keyboard, it can be assigned to nearly any parameter, such as gate length, and envelope and filter settings.
Conspicuously missing from the synth are sample-and-hold and pedal inputs. And one quirk of the instrument has to do with some of the switches: Key Tracking, Velocity, Ring and Sync are engaged when the switch is in the up position, away from the parameter name printed on the panel.
Overall, the minilogue has a sound all its own. Korg seems to have had modern dance styles in mind when it designed the synth, because it can sound fairly strident and aggressive when needed; anything you need to cut through a mix. And as I alluded to earlier, the factory presets tend to lean toward the noisy and busy side of things, with sequences that conjure up a party atmosphere. Yet it is easy to program sounds that one would normally associate with an analog synth such as chuffy flutes, zappy and noisy percussion, and rich basses.
Between the resonant filter, ring modulation, and cross modulation capabilities, you can get lovely, harmonically rich metallic and bell sounds. Combine that with velocity sensitivity and key tracking, as well as the ADSR-controlled LFO, and you can build some fairly complex timbres that change radically over time.
For me, the most important reasons to use an analog synth are sound quality and hands-on control. When these aspects are well integrated, you have an instrument that allows for a great deal of expressivity.
In the case of the Korg minilogue, you have immediate access to a wide range of sound-shaping parameters, all of which are intuitively placed—perfect for synth noobs as well as advanced users. Features such as the Shape knobs for each oscillator, Motion Sequencing, FM and ring modulation, the Voice Mode buttons, and a modern-sounding resonant filter make this keyboard a strong addition to any studio or performance setup. Best of all, the minilogue is just downright fun to play!
Price. Four voices. Sequencer. Delay. Voice Modes, including Chord and Arpeggiator. Ring modulation. FM. Easy to use.
Some switch positions are counterintuitive. The mini keys may bother some players. No sample-and-hold. No pedal inputs.