Within five minutes of touching the Korg KO-1 Kaossilator at Winter NAMM, I knew I wanted to play more. This palm-size, battery-powered synth and audio looper sounds fantastic, and its one-finger interface delivers musical results right away. But the Kaossilator also offers far more range and expression than you'd expect from a nonprogrammable synth under $200.
The Kaossilator is the latest in a series of touch pad-driven products from Korg, starting with the original Kaoss Pad effects processor, a 2000 EM Editors' Choice Award winner. When I reviewed the flagship KP3 Kaoss Pad (see the July 2007 issue, available at emusician.com), the synthesizer patches were one of my favorite parts, so I was eager to see how synthesis translated to the smaller package.
FIG. 1: With rich sounds derived from the Korg Radias, the battery-powered Kaossilator is a one-finger party to go. Its onboard audio looper lets you build 4-bar grooves through endless overdubs.
The Kaossilator looks like a yellow version of Korg's smallest Kaoss Pad, the Mini-KP (see Fig. 1). The metal top panel wraps around the front and back, covering a sturdy plastic body. A 2.5 × 2-inch x-y touch pad dominates the top face. As you slide your finger around the pad, the 3-digit LED display above it lights segments to roughly indicate your finger's location. The pad's smaller size relative to the KP3's makes it hard to hit specific notes, but the Scale function can help.
Above the touch pad are three buttons and a detented knob to select programs and adjust values. The buttons do different things depending on whether you click them, hold them, or press them in combination. Nonetheless, I quickly got the hang of using them, because all their basic functions are clearly labeled on the panel. In fact, the entire Kaossilator manual is printed on a single sheet of paper. Beginning electronic musicians would have benefited from definitions of the jargon, but this is an instrument that rewards experimentation quickly.
Kaoss on the Side
A fourth button, Gate Arp, lives on the case's front edge. It turns on the Gate Arpeggiator, which applies one of 50 rhythmic patterns to the note that you're holding on the touch pad. The patterns range from simple quarter notes to swinging grooves. A tiny card shows the rhythms in piano-roll notation; I scanned it and enlarged it for easier reading (see Web Clip 1).
Next to the Gate Arp button is the headphone jack and volume knob. Two holes let you attach a string or strap so you can hang the Kaossilator from your neck, Flavor Flav-style. The left side of the case holds the power switch. Although it's marked On and Standby, the Kaossilator resets to default settings and clears the loop-recorder memory when you switch to Standby.
FIG. 2: Other than a 3.5 mm headphone jack, the Kaossilator''s only outputs are two unbalanced RCA jacks.
On the back of the unit are the power jack, a pair of holes for attaching a security cable, and a pair of RCA jacks for line-level output (see Fig. 2). I didn't hear hiss from the outputs; this is a clean-sounding little synth.
Touch Pad of Genius
The 100 preset sounds are divided into 7 categories (see the specifications chart online and Web Clip 2). In general, left-right pad movements change the pitch, and up-down movements control the filter, volume, or LFO. But many patches, especially the drums and effects, have more unusual routings; be sure to peruse the manual for details. You can set the x-axis to one of 31 standard or exotic scales, or turn pitch quantization off for smooth sweeps.
The sounds tend toward the electronic, with lots of thick sawtooths, rasping pulse waves, and mournful squares. I particularly liked the theremin lead (program 03), although having the pitches quantized through the Scale function made me wish for a third controller to add vibrato. Here's hoping a future Kaoss instrument adds pressure sensitivity to the pad.
The ten acoustic patches — piano, trumpet, sax, and so on — are a mixed bag. They're not terribly realistic, but they do add an organic contrast when layered in the looper. Basses — again, with the exception of acoustic emulations — are excellent: big, bold, and cutting.
I really enjoyed the chord patches. Vertical pad movements tease out harmonics or even change chord quality from major to minor.
synthesizer$199FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 AUDIO QUALITY 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5
The Kaossilator furnishes a walloping big collection of sound effects, ranging from a cutesy Pac-Man gobble (program 74) to a spooky drone you can drive into raging feedback with a trip up the y-axis (program 60; see Web Clip 3). I asked the Kaossilator's sound designer why he included so many sound effects at the expense of more organic sounds. You can read his interesting reasoning in Web Clip 4; in short, it's because sound effects are easy to layer over other music yet difficult to control from normal keyboards.
The drum and drum-pattern programs are especially fun. With the latter, a groove starts playing as soon as your finger touches the pad, and subsequent movements change the timbre or bring individual drums (or synchronized echo effects) in and out. Once again, though, I would have liked some more natural sounds such as jazz and rock drums.
Looping, from Pad to Verse
What makes the Kaossilator especially engrossing is its infinite overdubber. Hold down the Loop Rec/Play button, and the instrument records everything you do on the pad, up to a length of eight beats. It even does some crossfading at the loop point, so you can wrap sustaining sounds around (see Web Clip 5).
Eight beats — two bars in 4/4 time — is disappointingly short. Even a 4-bar loop breathes much better, because it gives you time to set up tension and release. Luckily, Korg included an “Easter egg” that doubles the loop memory (see the sidebar “Secret Hack” for details).
The performances are recorded as audio, which means you chop into the loop (or create a gap) if you change the tempo; the audio does not time-stretch. Holding down the Loop Rec/Play button allows you to set the current recording so that you can undo subsequent overdubs. Unfortunately, playback stops during the setting process, which breaks the creative flow. You can also spot erase the recording; again, set tracks are not erased. All is lost on power-down, though, so you'll need to record the Kaossilator's analog output in real time if you want to save your loops. I got in the habit of carrying a tiny flash recorder for that purpose (see Web Clip 6).
Fun, affordable, well built, rich sounding, and unique, the Kaossilator is an instrument I constantly find myself looking forward to playing. I even kept the Kaossilator on my car seat for a while so I could play it through the stereo during red lights and traffic jams, but that got a little too distracting.
Any criticisms must be tempered by the prospect of having this much sonic goodness in such a small, affordable package. If I were to spec out a Kaossilator II, it would have longer loop time, buttons for both thumbs, pressure sensitivity or a mod wheel for times you want vibrato and volume control, and many more percussion sounds and acoustic models. I'd also want an SD card slot to off-load loops and jams. Of course, those upgrades would bump up the cost, so I think Korg made some good trade-offs, especially considering the hidden loop-length feature.
Touch pads can be remarkably intuitive and expressive, and I'm looking forward to more great things in the Kaoss series. Korg now has mini Kaoss devices in red and yellow — how about some Kaoss in every color of the rainbow?
My biggest wish for the Kaossilator was 4-bar looping, but it turns out that it's already there. Holding down the Loop Rec and Tap buttons while powering up will temporarily double the maximum loop length from 8 beats to 16 (the display will show DLY to confirm the new mode). This hack works by disabling the undo buffer, which means you can no longer fix overdubs, but the extra musicality of 4-bar phrases is well worth it.
PROS: Fantastic sound. Extremely portable. Solid construction. Nice price. Easy yet deep.
CONS: Maximum loop length with undo is eight beats. Locking overdubs pauses playback. Cutesy sound effects may grow tiresome.