KORG microX

If you've been craving the sound of a Korg Triton but can't squeeze another big keyboard into your life or budget, then Korg has a deal for you. The company's
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If you've been craving the sound of a Korg Triton but can't squeeze another big keyboard into your life or budget, then Korg has a deal for you. The company's new microX (see Fig. 1) packs most of the features of its popular workstation synth line — a 2003 EM Editors' Choice Award winner — into a 5-pound, 2-octave keyboard with a list price of $750.

You don't get the Triton's sequencer, sampling, plethora of effects processors, or hardware expandability, but the microX makes up for that with computer connectivity. Install the editor-librarian software and connect a USB cable, and you can audition and personalize patches from inside any digital audio sequencer that supports AU, RTAS, or VST plug-ins. (The editor also runs standalone.) Communication between software and synth is so fast that it's like having a huge color touch screen or a hardware plug-in; the computer and keyboard become one.

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FIG. 1: Compact yet equipped with a mighty synthesizer engine, the microX also makes a capable soft-synth controller thanks to its USB interface and assignable knobs.

The microX plays well with other programs too. Pressing its External Controller button gives you three banks of four knobs to control software synths, effects, or mixers. And its new Multi mode provides multitimbral setups that mate perfectly with a computer sequencer, so you can start recording tracks right away.

More than just a sawed-off Triton, the microX shows Korg's renowned attention to sound programming. Clever splits, layers, and arpeggiation let you play expressively on either the built-in keyboard or a full-size external one; the microX is like a sound module with keys. And although the sound ROM contains classic multisamples dating back to the 1988 Korg M1, half of the sample pool is fresh material designed for contemporary styles.

There's a lot to explore in this tiny box. Because EM has covered the Triton series extensively, I'll concentrate on the new features.

Meet My X

The first thing you notice when unpacking the microX is its cheerful orange travel case (see Web Clip 1). This plastic clamshell has compartments for the power supply and cables, which unfortunately makes it a few inches bigger than the limit for carry-on luggage. You could probably sneak the case onto a plane, but on a recent flight I didn't want to risk having to check it, because the case has only a few strips of foam tape for padding.

So I took the microX Operation Guide instead. That got me up to speed, but for the details, I had to dig through several cross-referenced PDFs on the driver disc. Better integration and some tutorial videos would have helped.

The keyboard has a standard synth action, with the keys hinged right at the top of the key bed, meaning that the black keys work best when your hands don't get too close to the back of the case. (Korg notes that the action is the same as on the TR and X50.) I'm picky about keyboard actions, but I got used to this one easily; the factory patches respond well to Velocity. You can select among eight Velocity curves in the Global menu.

Two Octave shift buttons blink faster to show how far you've shifted the pitch. I found I could hold a chord with one hand and then shift octaves to solo with the other, essentially extending the keyboard (see Web Clip 2). Pressing both buttons at once resets the octave to the preset value for that patch — a welcome shortcut.

Above the keyboard are four knobs and a button that switches them among three sets of modulation targets. The adjacent External Controller button disconnects the knobs from the onboard synth and calls up a whole new set of parameters — a quick way to tweak external MIDI hardware or software. The microX comes with controller presets for dozens of software synths, but you'll need to peruse a PDF for details; the display shows only the MIDI channel and Control Change (CC) number for each knob.

Next up is the Arpeggio On/Off button, with an LED that blinks on the beat; the main display shows the tempo in bpm. To the left of that are the Audition and Category buttons. While the Audition button is on, each new Program you select calls up an appropriate new riff, which makes finding sounds much easier than with the turn-a-knob, press-a-button routine on other synths (see Web Clip 3). Like many other Korg instruments, the microX offers basic patches called Programs and layered patches called Combinations or Combis.

The Category button also helps you find sounds faster. It brings up a menu of 16 sound categories, including Bass, Lead Synth, Drums, and User. You can then try out sounds in that category or flip to a new category. Strangely, there's no User category for Programs, only for Combis. However, you can rename the categories and assign any sound to any category, which offers a handy way to compile a bank of favorites.

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FIG. 2: The microX''s back panel includes four audio outputs, three pedal inputs, MIDI In and Out jacks, and a USB port. The keyboard can''t run off USB power, though; an AC adapter is required. The headphone jack is at the front.

You navigate with Page +/- buttons and a stubby little 4-way rocker switch called the ClickPoint that moves the cursor up, down, left, or right in the display. Pressing the switch's center activates the selected field for editing, which you can do by turning the data wheel or nudging the ClickPoint up or down. The data wheel is easy to grasp and lightly detented to help you dial in the right value. I wish the detents were a bit more pronounced, though, and that Korg had provided dedicated increment and decrement buttons.

The glowing red LCD is crammed with information (some characters are a microscopic 3 × 4 pixels), but its high contrast makes it clear even in bright light. Some of the edit modes have more than 40 pages, but a menu button lets you traverse them quickly. And of course, there's the software editor for the big-picture view.

Rounding out the front panel is the spring-loaded joystick, which sends Pitch Bend when you move it horizontally and CCs when you move it vertically. The vertical movements are usually mapped to vibrato (up) and filter effects (down). I discovered that I could play trills by wiggling the joystick rapidly, something I find tough to do on a wheel.

Round the Back: Jacks

The microX has four ¼-inch audio outputs — left/mono, right, and two individual outs, all unbalanced (see Fig. 2) — which is surprising for an instrument this size and price. You also get inputs for a footpedal, a footswitch, and a damper pedal. The damper jack supports half pedaling (Korg sells a compatible pedal for $65), and the other two pedals can control a variety of parameters, including tap tempo.

Next up are 5-pin MIDI In/Out and USB MIDI In/Out jacks. Unfortunately, the USB implementation provides MIDI interfacing only for the microX itself; you can't connect other MIDI instruments to the host computer through the microX's standard MIDI jacks. A full MIDI interface, as on Korg's padKontrol, would have been useful. I was also disappointed that the microX doesn't run off USB power or batteries, but that's probably due to the potency of its synthesizer engine.

All jacks are labeled on the top panel, and the headphone jack is at the front of the case, two design features I always appreciate. However, the case is entirely plastic and the headphone jack is an -inch type, so I could imagine a wayward elbow accidentally snapping it off.

Dance Architecture

The microX Program follows the proven Triton signal path: two sample-playback oscillators, each with its own filter and amplifier, feed some effects — in this case, a single insert effect followed by two Master effects and a 3-band EQ. The oscillators can switch waveforms based on Velocity. In Drum mode, you get just one oscillator, but each note can have a different high- and low-Velocity sample and effects-send amount.

You can split and layer up to 8 Programs into a Combi and collect up to 16 Programs in a Multi, a multitimbral setup used for MIDI sequencing. With only 3 effects processors to handle up to 16 channels of audio, I ended up recording each track to the computer either dry or with minimal effects and then using effects plug-ins during mixdown.

A polyphonic arpeggiator (two in Combi and Multi modes) generates everything from drum grooves to guitar strums and bubbling pads. It's no Karma (I tired of the repetition), but it really brings many of the sounds to life.

Computer Xchange

The microX's four real-time control knobs use the Triton mapping: in Bank A, they control filter cutoff and resonance as well as envelope intensity and release time. In Bank B, they control custom parameters for each Program or Combi. Bank C handles arpeggiator gate time, Velocity (essentially volume), pattern length, and tempo (see Web Clip 4).

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FIG. 3: Running as either a plug-in or a standalone program, the microX editor-librarian updates the keyboard instantly over USB—and vice versa. This screen shot shows the arpeggiator pattern editor, which would benefit from MIDI note input.

The mappings get interesting in External Controller mode. With Propellerhead Reason's ReDrum, for example, I discovered that the knobs control pan, pitch, and level for the first four drum sounds, whereas the first ten white keys will trigger, mute, or solo ReDrum's ten drum channels, depending on what octave range the keyboard is in. There are 64 presets for software ranging from Korg's Legacy Collection to Image-Line's FL Studio, and each is editable. I was impressed with the depth of programming.

With the exception of the arpeggiator-editing screen, which I found confusing and twitchy, the software editor really enhanced the microX. Changes you make on either the synthesizer or the computer are instantly reflected on the other device. It's quite a different experience from the typical “offline” editor (see Fig. 3).

I was initially disappointed that the USB interface carries only MIDI data, when other synthesizers manage to send both MIDI and audio over USB. But given that the microX outputs four channels of sound as well as dense MIDI streams, restricting USB traffic to MIDI makes sense. You'll need a few extra cables to record the audio into a computer, but I found that with my audio interface's latency dialed sufficiently low, the hybrid analog-and-USB system felt as tight as a standalone hardware synth. (Surprisingly, I got significantly better sound and latency with my Mac's built-in audio interface than with the USB audio interface I had been using, which suggests that keeping audio off the USB cable was a good decision.)

Mighty Micro Sounds

The Triton series is known for its outstanding sounds, and the microX carries that torch ably. You'll find glassy bells (see Web Clip 5), crisp acoustic guitars (see Web Clip 6), beefy basses, smooth pads, nasty leads, cutting pianos, opulent strings, succulent filter sweeps … nearly every sound seemed to suggest a new song.

When you listen to the multisamples alone, they're often short and thin, but they combine extremely well. That said, the microX wouldn't be my go-to box for orchestral work or acoustic piano; those sounds just seemed to have something missing.

The microX's new waveforms emphasize dance and ethnic timbres, though I found the latter were often so “produced” that they lost realism (see Web Clip 7). It's best to add ethnic spices sparingly. However, the dance and electronic sounds are really catchy; I particularly liked the grooving bass splits (see Web Clip 8).

X Hits the Spot

Combining a compact USB controller keyboard with a synthesizer makes a lot of sense. In the same amount of space, you get more musical options, as well as getting familiar sounds and controls when you're away from the computer.

The microX walks an interesting line between being a high-end sound module with keys and a compact controller with built-in sounds. Unless you consider software synths, there's no competition anywhere near this price in the sound module category.

As a controller with onboard sounds, the microX has two main competitors: Novation's X-Station and its just-announced XioSynth. Both Novations offer audio interfacing, Aftertouch, battery operability, and more knobs, but they fall far short in synthesis flexibility, being just 8-note monotimbral. That compares poorly with the microX's 62-note polyphony (31-note in dual-oscillator mode) and 16-part multitimbrality.

The closest competition probably comes from Korg itself. For a street price of only $50 more, the Korg X50 pairs the microX engine with a 4-octave keyboard, two controller buttons, many more navigation buttons, and pitch-bend and mod wheels. For all that, it weighs just about four pounds more. However, the X50's sound set, derived from the Korg TR workstation, is more general. It offers 128 fewer Programs, 172 fewer multisamples, and 411 fewer drum samples than the microX, and it's definitely too big to sneak on a plane or keep on a desktop. (It also lacks the microX's innovative External Controller function.) As a compact, rich-sounding, computer-friendly performance synthesizer and controller, the microX stands tall.

David Battino (www.batmosphere.com) is the coauthor of The Art of Digital Music (Backbeat Books, 2005) and the editor of the O'Reilly Digital Audio site (http://digitalmedia.oreilly.com).






PROS: Big Triton sound in a bite-size package. Dual arpeggiators and clever programming compensate for 2-octave keyboard. Multiple outputs. Real-time USB editor-librarian. Includes case.

CONS: Case is too big to qualify as carry-on luggage. Requires AC adapter. USB MIDI interface supports only microX, not external MIDI instruments.