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Review: volca modular takes on creative synthesis in a small package

Review: volca modular takes on creative synthesis in a small package

Can KORG take modular patching and Buchla-inspired synthesis, and squeeze it into a $200 instrument that’s nonetheless accessible to synth newcomers and specialists alike? We go deep with the brand new $199 KORG volca modular to seek out out.

To understand what this cute little field is about, we flip to veteran music tech journalist Francis Preve. Francis has labored throughout the business as a sound designer, so he’s acquired the experience – however he’s additionally an skilled instructor, which means he’s capable of translate that experience to newcomers. He’s one of many first to get his palms on a unit, so right here’s his take:

Ed.: Richard Devine can also be making some noises with this; we’ll add extra customers’ creations as you ship them in:

@@KorgUSA Volca Modular Solo Patch 2 ⚡️⚡️⚡️

— Richard Devine (@RichardDevine) January 15, 2019

The place the volca modular matches in

With three analog synths (volca bass, kick, and keys), two drum machines (volca beats and pattern) and an FM synth (volca fm), it was robust to guess the place Korg may go in increasing this massively profitable product line. Bodily modeling was an apparent selection, however West Coast modular? That’s not solely unprecedented, however sounds virtually bodily inconceivable. How on earth might any firm ship full-featured modular with patch factors and cables in a measurement barely bigger than a hardcover ebook? Once I noticed the press launch, I used to be admittedly skeptical, as most compact all-in-one modular synths forego requirements like splitters, mults, and patchable trim pots—important for true modular work.

West Coast synthesis can be new to many customers, because it’s not targeted on the subtractive methods popularized by mainstream analog synths. As an alternative it depends on constructing new timbres by manipulating easy waveforms (like triangles and sines) with complicated FM or AM modulation and distortion-like instruments. For extra depth on that distinction, you possibly can learn up on a simplified definition.

Thankfully, Korg went the additional mile and thoughtfully included a reference card with one aspect serving to diagram the structure and patch factors of every module and the opposite aspect together with 4 widespread patch configurations as “recipes” to get you began with your personal experiments. This actually helps with issues like creating dual-oscillator patches and including portamento.

You’re not left in the darkish: proper out of the field, KORG consists of some recipes to get you began.

I obtained my unit a week in the past and in that point, I can confidently make this easy assertion: The volca modular is groundbreaking, extremely versatile, and price each penny. However that’s simply my endorsement as a veteran synthesist and sound designer. Right here’s the reasoning behind it.

TLDR Abstract

For many who simply need a fast evaluation of the unit and sufficient info to find out whether or not it’s value your hard-earned money, let’s begin with a high-level overview of the necessities and a jiffy of unprocessed audio straight from the unit (hyperlink under)

It truly is an analog West Coast modular. It’s obtained extra patch factors than virtually each entry-level unit on the market, however packing options that shall be completely new to producers who don’t have already got a 168HP, two-bus Eurorack. In the event you’re already acquainted with East Coast subtractive synthesis, the volca modular feels prefer it originated in The Upside Down, thus immediately evoking curiosity and experimentation, as a result of until you’re already initiated, the outcomes might be lower than intuitive. So in case you’ve by no means labored with the West Coast methodology, you could be a little misplaced. However this may be a nice strategy to shift your strategy to Zen-like “beginner’s mind”. You possibly can’t put a worth on that type of inspiration—and when you already know what you’re doing with West Coast, you’ll be blown away by the function depth on this tiny titan.

It makes sound even with out patching, however it’s additionally straightforward to patch. The oscillator pair consists of each FM and wavefolding by way of its three knobs — and the tuning encoder digitally “snaps” into an important ratio settings, so that you don’t stumble upon the FM partitions an excessive amount of. That’s one thing you possibly can’t do this with a fully-analog modular. The built-in wavefolder can also be fairly gritty and aggressive. At zero (off), you will get chime-like FM sounds, however as you strategy most values, it’s much more versatile than a distortion.

You’ll respect these perform turbines. The twin Perform Turbines are fairly genuine as they’re impressed by earlier Serge and Buchla gear, so West Coast aficionados will recognize each their implementation and patchability. The primary is an attack-hold-release envelope, whereas the second could be pressed into service as a pseudo-LFO with a single patch wire for retriggering or clocking. Extra on that once we go deeper.

— and extra “West Coast” goodness from the lowpass gates and different important instruments, too. The 2 lowpass gates [labeled LPG] are nice for each modifying audio alerts and experimenting with management voltages—and talking of CVs, the volca modular additionally consists of a Utility module with trim pot, in addition to a mult/splitter. These are important elements of each primary modular rig and are sometimes left off entry-level semi-modulars for some purpose *cough*. Korg didn’t reduce these corners, fortunately.

Plus there’s a retro-sounding reverb. On the finish of the chain is a unusual little digital reverb that fuses parts of plates, springs, and multitaps. It livens issues up properly in that “Bebe and Louis Barron” mid-century experimental electronica method.

You get volca-style sequencing energy, not simply patching. The sequencer is the actual sleeper function on this unit. Whereas everyone seems to be cooing over the patchability, it’s straightforward to overlook that the sequencer’s movement features allow you to automate almost each knob on the entrance panel, principally including an LFO or step-sequencer to any parameter with minimal effort. The opposite sequencer features are largely the identical because the earlier volcas, with further scale/tonic options for many who are new to this “music” factor—and a few microtonal scale design options for many who are utterly over this “music” factor. That stated, including microtonal choices is one other nod to the West Coast aesthetic.

That’s simply skating throughout the synthesis options, so when you’re nonetheless on the fence about whether or not it will match into your present volca rig (or studio workflow) right here’s a jiffy of audio, utilizing the manufacturing unit sequences, some unique patching, and a boatload of customized movement automation.

Finally, I feel the volca modular is a unprecedented achievement each in phrases of synthesis and portability. A lot in order that I’m ordering a few models for my faculty, in order that I can embrace West Coast ideas in my synthesis programs, in addition to touring with it on my #vanlife voyages. Modular by the campfire? Hell yeah.

Modules, in depth

Skilled mode engaged. Nonetheless right here? Good. As a result of I’m now going to look at every module individually and clarify West Coast ideas in phrases that softsynth customers can simply perceive. Whereas the Volca Modular is analog—giving it a distinctly heat and chaotic character—the ideas behind manipulating West Coast tone turbines might use a little bit of demystification for many who are primarily accustomed to sawtooths, squares, and wavetables.


That is the volca modular’s main tone era device, and consists of a pair of triangle waves configured in an FM carrier-modulator pair. The three parameters are modulator tuning (regularly variable, with slight digital detents for widespread ratios like 1:1, 2:1, and so on), modulator depth (FM depth) and fold. The fold knob is a hallmark of the West Coast sound, which frequently begins with a easy waveform like sine or triangle, then modulates and processes it into a brighter waveform. If you need translate the folder’s conduct, it’s not a stretch to think about it as a fancy distortion.

There are CV inputs for general pitch (each oscillators), modulator pitch (ratio tuning), fold quantity, and FM depth, letting you employ the perform turbines and even the output of a lowpass gate to control these features. And that is simply the start line.

Within the volca’s default unpatched state, the Supply audio output is routed to the primary Lowpass Gate, which helps newcomers rise up and operating shortly.

Perform Turbines

There are two perform turbines and every behaves in a very particular method. The primary is an AHR (attack-hold-release) generator, however there’s no separate maintain parameter and the discharge is tied to the decay, like the unique Minimoog. Apparently the assault phase is an inverse exponential curve, whereas the decay/launch is exponential. Exponential decays are the snappiest of all and are nice for transients and Kraftwerkian “thwips”.

Patch-wise there are CV inputs for gate, assault, and launch parameters, whereas the CV outs embrace constructive, damaging (inverted), and set off outputs. Thus, there’s a CV for each facet of the module. Spectacular.

Within the default routing, this envelope is patched to the cutoff of the primary lowpass gate, so it features as a combo filter and amp AD envelope until you patch it elsewhere.

The second perform generator is a bit trickier. A workable analogy right here is to match it to an LFO in one-shot mode (just like the one in Korg’s Monologue). Right here, there are two parameters: waveshape and time. Waveshape is constantly variable from an exponential downward ramp (consider it as a quick decay envelope) to a softened attack-decay envelope to a constructive ramp/sawtooth (lengthy assault, prompt decay) envelope. The Time parameter controls the general velocity of each segments concurrently—a bit like a sawtooth or triangle LFO in one-shot mode.

As with the primary perform generator, there are CV inputs for each factor, together with set off in, waveshape, and time. On the output aspect, you’ve received constructive and inverted voltages and one other set off out when the form completes its cycle. That is the place the LFO taste comes into play.

Listed here are two methods to patch the second perform generator for LFO results.

1. If you’d like a tempo-synced LFO impact, you possibly can route one of many clock triggers to its set off enter. This would be the most acquainted LFO impact, and the clock divisions are clearly labeled on the Volca Modular entrance panel.

2. If you’d like the perform generator to independently repeat—unsynced—you’ll be able to route its finish set off output again to the enter set off and create a loop, with the time parameter controlling the “LFO rate”.


The time period “lowpass gate” sounds complicated at first – “lowpass” refers back to the filter; “gate” to an envelope. For a detailed rationalization of the time period – perhaps overly detailed – you possibly can learn up:

LPG [Low Pass Gate]

However the primary concept is simply what the time period says: a lowpass gate combines the traits of a filter with these of a gate. And that units it aside from commonplace vanilla lowpass filters as you encounter on most synths.

In plain terminology, a lowpass gate is simply a VCA tied to a non-resonant lowpass filter with a 6 or 12dB rolloff, typically based mostly on a Sallen-Key filter (as discovered on the KORG MS-20, MS-10, and Arturia Brute). Whenever you open the cutoff, you additionally improve the quantity by way of the VCA. The time period “lowpass gate” is related to the Buchla synthesizer (which added it on early in synth historical past on the 200 collection), however the primary concept of mixing filters and amplitude envelopes isn’t distinctive to these devices. The Roland SH-101, for example, has a filter/amp combo envelope that may work in a comparable approach.

The precise “West Coast” taste is then partly associated to sound. On this volca, a discerning ear will decide up on the truth that at very low cutoff values, the Supply triangle wave (with no folding or FM) transforms into a muted noticed which progressively morphs into a triangle as you attain the higher cutoff frequencies. So whereas it features very similar to a commonplace lowpass in conventional configurations, it does have a little “something extra” that makes it much less predictable in some contexts.

Having two LPGs opens a world of prospects. For instance, you’ll be able to route the modulating oscillator into the second LPG for a dual-triangle-oscillator impact, whereas maintaining the primary LPG for processing the FM modulated service, then use the second perform generator for an LFO impact on LPG2’s cutoff/VCA. With the sequencer on, it’s extraordinarily complicated.

Right here’s a look (and pay attention) at that patch:


The Area module is a digital reverb with a lot of retro taste. Sonically, it feels like a hybrid room reverb, with a lot of filtered early reflections, making me suspect that there’s a multi-tap delay hiding in right here someplace. The quantity knob governs each combine and decay. Some settings are brief and springy, others really feel a bit like a cluster of filtered delays with a longer room. However all of them have a BBC Radiophonic Workshop vibe.

Modular instruments

Whereas the above is a primer on the person modules, the factor that makes the volca modular absolutely practical is the gathering of utilities that they managed to squeeze onto the entrance panel.

I’ll be candid right here, there are mass produced semi-modulars out there that value 3 times as a lot and nonetheless don’t embrace these important elements. With out them, it’s unimaginable to get a correctly complicated modular patch. So seeing them on this volca is a testomony to Korg’s consideration to element and a actual worth for patrons.


That is the part that governs the general tempo of your sequences, with further outputs for clock sub-divisions. There’s additionally a clock offset patch level. Whereas you need to use these for something, they’re nice for triggering Perform Generator 2 for tempo-synced LFO results.

Cut up/Mult

Right here you’ll be able to cut up one sign into a number of outs for modulating a number of modules—or mix two alerts into a single output. For instance, if you wish to route a Perform Generator to a number of locations, that is your go-to. I’m delighted to see this addition, as there are costlier starter that forego it completely.


One other typically omitted however completely important modular software is a secondary trim pot for scaling the modulation depth of a supply. It’s included in the Utility module, together with a pair of further summing inputs that may be output as A+BxC or A-BxC. On a unit this measurement, it’s extraordinary.


For some cause, some factions in the modular group has determined to name some sample-and-hold modules “Woggles”, so Korg opted to make use of that time period for a nod to Wiard and Make Noise, whose Wogglebug module replicates a lot of the performance of the Buchla “Source of Uncertainty” module. In apply, the volca’s “Woggle” module features as a combo sample-and-hold (randomization) generator with a further lag generator for smoothing, if desired.

On this Woggle module, there are two inputs and two outputs. The “sample” enter is normalled to noise when nothing is plugged in, ultimate for traditional “random” results. Within the Woggle patch bay, you possibly can apply an exterior sign (like a VCO) to override this. The second enter triggers the sampling of this voltage, which is then output to each the stepped and smoothed patch factors, for numerous randomized results.

As a result of the smoothed output is definitely a lag generator, you’ll be able to patch the output of the Volca keyboard management floor into the Woggle sign enter, then run its smoothed output again to the primary pitch CV enter, creating glide/portamento results. Complicated names apart, it’s one other important module with a ton of versatility.


It’s mind-woggling what Korg has packed into the volca type issue. This modular will simply match in a backpack or messenger bag, however consists of almost each important module for dipping a massive toe into the world of West Coast-inspired sound design. In the event you’re a volca collector, that is arguably the hippest unit Korg has launched up to now. And in the event you’re simply a synth fan with in search of a method to give your rig much more analog taste, the worth level is completely irresistible. Put one other approach, should you purchased a Eurorack for West Coast synthesis and outfitted it equally, you’d spend at the least 3 times as a lot as this unit.

I’m pretty sure the volca modular can be backordered for a whereas, so order it now.

Francis Preve’s website covers his skilled background in element, from sound design to writing to manufacturing and educating – plus distinctive tasks like his Scapes environmental sounds. Go to

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