The microKORG: Observations & Stuff

The microKORG; sometimes I love her, and sometimes I hate her.

Sometimes I conceptualize recording an entire project using only the mK, yet other times, it's sheer presence in the studio will piss me off to the point of trying to sell it dirt-cheap on Craigslist just to get it out of the house. I know that there are literally thousands of good, bad, and mediocre reviews of the microKORG, so here's my take on this little beast:

Synth Engine

For starters, the 4 voice synth engine is solid and has the ability to create some amazing sounds that span the entire audio spectrum from gut churning basses to angelic and ethereal pads. That said, the 128 presets that it ships with are pretty decent to get you started, but PLEASE refrain from using them in your recordings/performances without doing a decent amount of tweaking and effecting. The mK seems to have a very unique sonic footprint, and since so many people own this synth, using the presets as-is is definitely going to be frowned upon. Of course this can be said about any synth, but especially for the microKORG. There's nothing quite as anticlimactic as seeing a band perform live using the mK and you recognize they're using factory preset A43. True story. The built-in delay/ensemble effects are great, but I think the mK sounds 1000x better when ran through some outboard effects. If I want a sick and meaty low-end bass, I'll run the mono output of the Korg to my fuzz pedal and then directly to the board or to a bass amp. It's pretty filthy.

Editing and tweaking your own patches is easy enough via the seven knobs and 3 character LED screen, but it tends to be a time-consuming process, especially since there's no visual feedback of your tweaks. If membrane style programming isn't your bag, then you should definitely download the free microKORG Patch Editor, but since the mK lacks USB connectivity, you'll need an inexpensive USB/MIDI cable. Both the MIDI implementation and the editor are a tad wonky, but you'll be able to visually access and edit all of the synth's parameters. Adding to the functionality, once you've made your connection, you can sequence the mK from your workstation (Ableton, FL Studio, Sonar, etc.) via MIDI out. This of course, opens up a whole new world of possibilities and will really let you unleash the power of the microKORG. Finally, since the synth engine is same one used in the Korg MS-2000, you can import MS-2000 patches into the mK by means of sysex files. You'll need a MIDI utility such as MIDI OX, and from there, it's gets a little complicated...

Truth be told, this was a key factor in my decision to purchase the mK as I wanted it for live vocoding. Software/VST vocoders are great, but they tend to be process hogs, especially in live situations, so for this reason alone, I insisted on the hardware route. Upon setup, the first thing you must do is replace the freebie gooseneck mic that it ships with. A lot of the reviews tend to insinuate that the vocoder sucks, which if you use the gooseneck, I totally agree with, however after popping in an inexpensive dynamic mic, the quality difference is absolutely amazing. Also, depending on your intentions, the supplied vocoder patches are pretty lame, so you'll definitely want to create your own, either manually or with the software editor, especially if you're going for the traditional robot/Cylon effect.

Right out of the box, the faux wood side-panels felt a tad loose, which made it feel a little flimsy, but after a few turns with the screwdriver, they were nice and tight and it definitely felt more solid. I've also noticed that a lot of people seem to complain about the keys, either their size or feel. I do admit that they do take a little getting used to, but unless you're recreating Flight of the Bumblebee, you should be able to manage just fine, even with stubby little sausage fingers. Naturally, if worse comes to worse, you can always connect a full size MIDI controller and use the mK as a stand-alone sound module. As far as running via battery power, the concept is pretty cool, but be warned, they do drain pretty quickly and will give you a little over an hour of playing and tweaking. I've never been the type to rely on battery power, especially for outboard gear or stomp boxes, so I would suggest sticking with the wall-wart. Lastly, don't be fooled by the bank names on the Program Select panel because they really don't do any justice for the mK. I'm sure "Trance", "Techno/House", "Electronica", etc. were used for marketing purposes by satisfying the instant gratification factor for that out-of-box experience.

In Summation
To the best of my knowledge, the microKORG is still in production and is available for about $350 brand new, but that's not to say that you can't find one much cheaper on eBay or Craigslist. If you have one, keep it 'n tweak it, and if you're on the fence about getting one; get it! I know there are literally thousands of VSTi plugins that that have more bells and whistles in one oscillator than the mK has in total, but for the price, you get a lot of bang for your buck, plus a cool piece of hardware. I'm not saying that it's an all-in-one or everyday synth, but it's definitely a cool piece of kit to have in your arsenal. Lastly, if you're looking for an easy talkbox solution (a la Roger Troutman), I suggest pairing your microKORG with a Rochtron Banshee.