The battery-powered Korg microSampler combines a drum machine, a phrase sampler, Kaoss effects and USB MIDI control with minikeys that feel great.
Thinking outside the (groove) box, Korg has created the microSampler ($499), a phrase sampler with keys. It puts a sampler, pattern sequencer, USB MIDI keyboard and Kaoss effects processor in a portable, battery-powered case.
The microSampler has the same mic and minikeys I praised in the microKorg XL review (see emusician.com/elecinstruments/korg-microkorg-quick-0909). It's even smaller and lighter, but an angled metal brace above the keys makes it feel sturdier. I've lost knobs while traveling with other gear, so I particularly liked how all the microSampler's controls are recessed.
However, I was dismayed that it has no pitch-bend and modulation wheels. The only real-time controllers are two hard-to-tweak knobs at the far right, used to alter effects parameters and enter data. Granted, other groove boxes don't have wheels, but wheels would have made the microSampler more expressive as an instrument and MIDI controller. Although the microSampler does respond to MIDI pitch bend, its range is fixed to one octave.
The back panel offers a headphone jack, stereo line I/O on ¼-inch jacks, MIDI I/O, and a USB port for MIDI and communicating with the surprisingly capable editor/librarian software. (Because its keys double as page selectors, editing on the microSampler is reasonably fast, but the software is faster still.) On the rear, a switch toggles the input to the XLR jack on the top panel, but I wish the switch and its input trim knob were also on top. Instead of the microKorg XL's terrific vocoder, you get reverb, a funky vowel filter and a Kaossilator-style looper. The latter lets you build huge textures fast, but it has no undo and records only one bar.
FIVE MODES, NO WAITING
A large dial selects the sampling mode: Loop, One Shot, Gate, Auto Next or Key Gate. The mode determines the envelope's release (full sample or as played) and the looping status (on or off); you can change both later. You can also set samples to sync to tempo using time stretch or pitch change — a feature that competing phrase samplers lack.
Auto Next mode chops incoming audio into rhythmic slices assigned to adjacent keys. You could convert a drum groove into a drum kit, or you could use Auto Next for some crazy live beat slicing (see Web Clips 1 through 5). Sometimes, I had to adjust the decay and release envelopes after sampling to remove clicks.
Key Gate lets you start and stop sampling by pressing the keys to which you want to assign new samples. That saves time, but you risk cutting off the attack or leaving dead air at the beginning. I got better results by triggering sampling with the audio-threshold function in other modes. Threshold triggering is especially useful when resampling because you can set the recording duration to a specific number of beats.
Sample mode triggers one sample per key, with the top C activating the audio input. Keyboard mode transposes one sample across all keys. You can access both modes simultaneously over separate MIDI channels, or sustain a few loops with the Loop Hold button in Sample mode and then switch to Keyboard mode to solo. It's a terrific design.
The microSampler has eight memory banks. Each holds 36 samples, totaling 80 seconds of stereo audio per bank at 16-bit, 48kHz resolution. Sampling in mono doubles that; you can also reduce the sampling rate to gain more space or get some lo-fi grit. A ninth bank holds some cheap and cheerful ROM samples — including an electric piano, organ, acoustic bass, clavinet, sawtooth pad and brass patch — that are handy in a pinch. Loading a bank takes as long as 10 seconds, so plan ahead.
Using drum machine-style overdubbing, you can record 16 sequences per bank, each up to 99 bars long. Quantizing is available, but not swing. You can switch sequences on the next bar line by turning a knob and retrigger them by pressing a button, facilitating on-the-fly arranging.
After reviewing the microKorg XL, I was initially shocked by the microSampler's shortcomings — just two controller knobs, no wheels, no mono mode, no dedicated filter, no attack envelope and a scanty serving of ROM sounds. But after the microSampler repeatedly kept me jamming until 4 a.m., I began seeing it as a different kind of instrument: a fast and fun phrase sampler that makes it easy to add melody and harmony to your grooves. Thanks to the effects and instant keyboard mapping, a quick “Ooh” sampled into the mic can become a unique solo sound. Add an MP3 player for backing tracks, and you've got a gig to go.
Overall rating (1 through 5): 4