KORG KP3 Kaoss Pad

The Korg KP3 Kaoss Pad (KP3) hands-on effects processor and MIDI controller.
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FIG. 1: Play your effects (or your soft synths) with the KP3''s 8 5 8 light-up display. A trail of LEDs follows your finger to show the last value. The four sample pads trigger one‑shots and unmute loops.

Variety is what makes life — and music — interesting. In the third version of its Kaoss Pad, Korg has made it easier than ever to warp your music in ear-pleasing ways. And not only is the KP3 Kaoss Pad (KP3) a hands-on effects processor, it's also a surprisingly deep MIDI controller.

The KP3 is an eye pleaser too, thanks to its illuminated touch pad and buttons (see Fig. 1). Whereas the KP2 changed color based on the position of your finger, the KP3 turns the touch pad itself into a 64-pixel display. Stroke the pad, and a trail of fading red lights follows your fingertip like fairy dust. Hit the Hold button, and the LED under the last point you touched remains lit so you can see where you left off. Change programs, and the name of the new effect scrolls by like a message on a bank clock. Switch to External Controller mode, and the eight columns of LEDs can emulate eight faders. It's both slick and useful.

Korg upgraded the sampling as well, adding two more sample-playback pads (for a total of four), resampling, an SD memory card slot, and USB sample and parameter transfer. And because effects are the heart of the Kaoss Pad series, the KP3 got a fresh crop of unusual new ones.

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Click here for product specifications on the KORG KP3 Kaoss Pad effects processor and MIDI controller.

8 × 8 State

After reviewing a parade of plastic gear over the last few years, I was pleasantly surprised when I pulled the KP3 from its box. It's bigger than it looks in photos — with cables connected, the KP3 is about the size of a copy of EM. Looking like Darth Vader's track pad, it sports a sturdy metal case with enough heft (almost 3 pounds) to keep it from sliding around. Unfortunately, the knobs are attached directly to the circuit board rather than being bolted to the case, exposing the ones on the front to potential damage. The headphone level knob scraped against the housing until I gently bent it back.

The star of the front panel is the x-y touch pad, which is about 3 inches wide by 3.75 inches tall and has a lovely, smooth feel. It senses the lightest touch of your finger, unlike most other track pads, which make you grind down.

Although the LED grid beneath the pad divides it into eight zones vertically and horizontally, the pad actually transmits 128 values in each direction over MIDI, and at least that many to the internal effects parameters. Pad sensitivity varies with the program that's loaded. Some of the synthesizer programs span an octave from left to right; others cover several octaves (see Web Clip 1). With the drum groove programs, sliding your finger from left to right switches among eight patterns; with the filter programs, you get a smooth sweep.

In addition to sensing fingertip position, the pad also detects taps, which you can assign to MIDI events such as Note On commands. It doesn't, however, detect Velocity or Pressure.

Knobs and Buttons

Below the touch pad are four Sample Bank buttons, which light up in green when assigned to loops and red when assigned to one-shots. When a loop is playing, its button turns orange (more on sampling in a moment). In fact, almost every button on the KP3 lights up, blinking when necessary to guide you through the occasional multistep sequence of pushes. That visual feedback makes the KP3 especially easy to navigate.

Above the touch pad are eight illuminated Program Memory buttons. As on the KP2, these store shortcuts to your eight favorite programs, but on the KP3 they also perform a time-slicing of sorts, letting you skip over portions of each sample to create interesting rhythmic variations (see Web Clips 2a and 2b). Press the nearby Shift button, and the Program Memory buttons become enabled to transfer samples to and from the memory card, adjust MIDI and display settings, and put the KP3 into USB Mass Storage mode so you can access an SD card (not included) from a computer.

Other control improvements include dedicated buttons for Mute (which makes it easier to perform gating effects), Pad Motion (which records a few seconds of your movements on the pad), and audio tempo detection. You can now save Pad Motion performances in the Program Memories as well and play them backward. Unfortunately, Pad Motions always run at the original speed rather than adjusting to the sequence length, which makes them awkward to use with loops.

The fader is another KP3 innovation. Normally it controls the level of all four samples in parallel. Hold the Shift button, and the fader instead controls the feedback amount for an eighth-note delay on the effect signal. The delay kicks in when you lift your finger from the touch pad. Korg calls this feature FX Release; it's designed to smooth the transition between processed and dry sounds, and it does.

You can also program the fader, FX Depth knob, and Hold button to send MIDI data. The FX Depth knob doubles as an output level control for the drum groove and synthesizer programs, but it would have been helpful to have a true master output knob.

On the KP3's right side are the tempo controls, including the detented Program Change/BPM Adjust knob. (Pressing it toggles functions.) The Tap/Range button lets you tap the tempo or set a detection range for analyzing incoming audio. I found that automatic tempo detection worked quite well on music with a prominent beat, and I liked the way it continually readjusted to tempo changes. Pressing Shift and the Tap/Range button simultaneously invokes the Align function, which restarts all looping samples on the downbeat. You can tap it repeatedly to create stuttering effects.

Jacks in the Box

Unlike the KP2, the KP3 has no turntable inputs, just RCA line inputs and a ¼-inch mono mic input (see Fig. 2). A handy lever switches between them. Some people complain that the Kaoss Pads use RCA jacks for line-level I/O; Korg contends that they provide a more secure fit than ¼-inch jacks and that adapters are readily available. I feel the lack of an XLR mic input is a bigger inconvenience. Then again, you're probably going to mangle the mic signal with effects, so a cheapo mic should suffice. Another option would be to put the KP3 in Send (100 percent wet) mode and run it off the effects loop in a mixer. In that case, you could use any I/O your mixer provides.

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FIG. 2: The KP3''s back panel includes a power jack (with no cord lock), MIDI I/O, USB, a Direct/Send switch for in-line or aux-send hookups, and RCA audio I/O. A headphone output, a ¼-inch mono mic input, and an SD card slot are on the front.

You also get MIDI In and Out as well as USB. The USB jack lets you transfer samples and parameters to and from the software editor-librarian, send and receive MIDI data between the KP3 and other software, and access an SD memory card from a computer. Unfortunately, you can't address the hardware MIDI ports over USB, which would have enabled the KP3 to be a MIDI interface.

Rounding out the back panel are a power button and a jack for the 12V wall wart. I would have liked a cord lock for the latter and a Kensington security slot. Korg says those additions would have raised the price significantly due to the metal case.

Effects Appeal

With 128 effects and sound generators in 14 categories, I found it maddening that the only documentation on them was a single page listing their names and x-y control parameters. The manual in general is shallow. Be prepared to do a lot of experimentation. I recommend starting with the video walk-through on Korg's site, which was uploaded just before we went to press.

Fortunately, exploring the KP3 is fun. The majority of effects sync to tempo, and those that don't can pick up the synchronized echo from the FX Release feature.

The filters don't sound as juicy as I'd hoped, but they do provide intriguing parameters such as noise level and shape (see Web Clip 3). With the 8-band graphic EQ, you can draw the frequency curve on the touch pad.

Fans of abrasive textures will enjoy the new Decimator effect, which reduces the sampling rate and bit depth (see Web Clip 4). Alas, the reverbs are gritty too.

LFOs account for a fifth of the effects, and they're all beat-synced. Generally, the x-axis controls speed, ranging from 8-bar sweeps to frantic burbles. I particularly liked the infinite highpass filter and flanger effects, which apply a sonic barber pole to your sound (see Web Clip 5).

There are a number of interpolating delays, which change pitch instead of glitching as you change the delay time — great for dub effects (see Web Clip 6).

Grain shifter is a new effect reminiscent of the Grain Delay in Ableton Live. It seems to grab short slices of the sound periodically and loop them for a buzzy, stuttering effect (see Web Clip 7). (Here's where a descriptive manual would be welcome.) For longer, rhythmic looping — with wonderfully grungy pitch transposition — there are 20 looping and sampling programs (see Web Clip 8).

Four crossfade programs let you fade between the four sample pads on the x-axis while applying another effect on the y-axis. Because that design never lets you hear more than two samples at once, I would also have liked a mode that put each sample at a corner of the touch pad and let you fade between them Wavestation-style.

The four drumbeats are useful, if bland; I resampled them to drive several of the Web Clips. The pad performance layout is really cool, though. In two programs, the x-axis selects among eight patterns and the y-axis varies delay depth. In others, the axes control tone, decay, and delay. The two remaining drum programs are finger drums, which trigger different sounds based on where you tap.

I loved playing the ten synth programs, which ranged from a brassy sawtooth to screeching digital textures, all fed through rock star echo. It's hard to hit specific notes when playing from the pad, but it's simple to scrape out wild, expressive swoops and blips (see Web Clip 1).

The final effect category is vocoder. Although these vocoders are supposedly derived from the vaunted Korg Radias, I found them disappointing. The sound is rough and gargly, and you can't specify the pitch with MIDI notes. You just slide your finger around and hope the pitch lines up with the song (see Web Clip 9). That makes it tough to produce traditional “robot singing,” but I did find myself using the vocoders to munge loops into background textures.

Sample This

The KP3 offers a unique take on sampling (see the sidebar “Loop Trigger Hack”): everything is referenced to the current tempo. When you hit the Sampling button, you're given the choice of recording 1, 2, 4, 8, or 16 beats. Hit the sample pad to which you want to record, and the eight Program Memory buttons start counting down the remaining time. (A tricolor LED indicates level.) If you terminate sampling before the countdown ends, you get a one-shot; otherwise, the audio you recorded starts looping. The process is extremely fast.

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FIG. 3: With the straightforward editor-librarian, you can -transfer samples to and from the KP3, make extensive controller -assignments, and even change the scrolling message.

If you subsequently change tempo, loops will change speed and pitch to match (there's no time-stretching, alas). One-shots always play back at the original pitch and tempo. The only way to figure out a loop's original tempo is to transmit it to the computer editor-librarian (see Fig. 3).

There's rudimentary sample editing for loops; you can adjust the start time plus or minus one beat in 32nd-note increments. (One-shots can't be trimmed.) When I missed catching a downbeat, I found it easier to resample the loop to a new pad (see Web Clips 10a, 10b, and 10c).

When resampling, you can run the sound through the effects. You can also change the level of individual pads and, with loops, mute individual slices in real time with the eight Program Memory buttons. I had fun chopping up a politician's speech that way (see Web Clip 2).

You can also import 8-, 16-, and 24-bit mono or stereo WAV or AIFF files at 44.1 or 48 kHz; the KP3 converts the file to 48 kHz and truncates the length to 16 beats. Samples can be saved to and loaded from the SD card as well, although they must be named with 2-digit numbers, not text.

Computer-MIDI Kaoss

I installed the KP3 MIDI driver and editor-librarian on both Mac OS X and Windows XP. Transferring samples and settings back and forth was simple, although the PDF manual was very sketchy on MIDI control functions. I had to hook up a MIDI monitor to figure out what was going on.

Pressing Shift-8 on the KP3 puts it in a special controller mode in which it stops processing audio and assigns MIDI commands to the eight Program Memory buttons, the four Sample Bank buttons, the x-y pad, the FX Depth knob, the fader, and the Hold button. What's more, in this mode, the x-y pad can send up to eight different MIDI Control Change messages based on position and one more for taps (see Web Clip 11). I easily mapped buttons 6, 7, and 8 to Start, Stop, and Continue on my sequencer.

All is not well in MIDI-land, though. After reading several online reports of MIDI sync problems, I created a drum pattern in my keyboard sequencer, sampled it into the KP3 with the latter in External Sync mode, and then played both patterns simultaneously. They drifted apart in less than 30 seconds. Driving the keyboard from the KP3's clock did keep the notes in sync, although that would be a hassle live, because you'd have to enter the tempo manually on the KP3 for each song. Interestingly, the KP3 did a better job syncing to the keyboard when I set it to derive tempo from the audio signal. I also crashed the KP3 once. Korg recently released a firmware update (version 1.03) that addresses the crashing and “some MIDI clock sync issues.” It is still investigating the loop-drift reports.

See the Light

The KP3's DJ pedigree gives it a refreshing directness. There are no layers of confusing menus here, just immediate control. Being able to play in three dimensions at once (vertical, horizontal, and tapping) on the luxurious-feeling touch pad is unspeakably cool. I tried mapping two knobs on an external MIDI controller to the KP3's x- and y-axis parameters, and it felt about as fluid as an Etch A Sketch.

If you're looking for a groove box or studio effects processor, you may be disappointed. There are only four sample pads and they don't support time-stretching, the MIDI sync currently drifts, several effects (particularly reverb) sound rather gritty, and the I/O is designed for DJ mixers, not studio ones. For a street price of $399 I can't complain too much, though. On the other hand, the KP3 makes a stunning controller for other effects and synthesizers, and it's so tactile and fun to use, you'll be tempted to sprinkle its chaotic spice on everything.

David Battino (www.batmosphere.com) is the coauthor of The Art of Digital Music (Backbeat Books, 2004) and the audio editor of the O'Reilly Digital Media Web site (http://digitalmedia.oreilly.com).


The most confusing thing about the KP3 is the way it handles looped samples. Rather than triggering loops from the beginning when you press a sample pad, it runs the loops continuously in the background and then unmutes them. (One-shot samples behave as expected, starting from the beginning.) If you have four loops of equal length that all start on a downbeat, that design ensures they'll always be synchronized with each other. But it also means there's no way to know which section of the loop you'll hear when you press a pad.

To get around the problem, use this hack I discovered: to trigger one or more loops from the beginning, hold down the Mute button, start the loop(s), hold down the Shift button, and then simultaneously release the Mute button and press the Align button.

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Click here for product specifications on the KORG KP3 Kaoss Pad effects processor and MIDI controller.


KP3 Kaoss Pad

effects processor/loop sampler



PROS: Smooth, informative touch pad/display. Tempo-synced, playable effects. Straightforward USB editor-librarian. Hefty metal housing. Surprisingly deep MIDI controller capabilities.

CONS: MIDI sync drifts. No XLR mic input. No time-stretch on samples. No power cord restraint. No MIDI note input on vocoder. No master output knob. Skimpy manual.