It wasn't so long ago that nobody cared about analogue synthesisers. In and around the mid-'00s, there was a general change in attitude toward digital music technology. Now analog synths have been reinvested with intangible qualities that border on the mythic, and companies big and small are scrambling to meet demand. The reality is that analogue's supposedly desirable traits, such as "warmth," are basically the result of things not working perfectly. It's now conventional wisdom that if you want your synths to feel alive, you need that analogue authenticity to get the job done.
While it's perfectly valid to say that the analogue fetish has gone too far, you can't deny that some pretty awesome synthesisers are appearing at very reasonable prices, precisely because this fetish has become so engrained in producer culture. What's more, they're coming packed with functions that would've cost you a small fortune 30 years ago. Korg's new minilogue, a four-voice polyphonic synth priced at $500, is one of the best examples of this yet. Just days after it's release, the minilogue was causing a veritable storm in the music tech world and the praise thus far has been deafening.
First off, the thing is well-built for a relatively cheap synth. It even has a panel made from real wood, and if you're concerned about making your $500 investment last, you can rest easy in the knowledge that all the parts should be easily replaceable if they ever come to grief. However, you're not going to be fussing around much with the build quality after you take it out of the box. This is the sort of synth you can jump right into with only a basic knowledge of the fundamentals of synthesis. Most of the parameters have a designated knob and you'll probably only need the manual to find out certain details about editing sequences.
The stars of the show might be the oscillators. There's two of them, each with a choice of saw, triangle and square waveforms, and they cover a wider frequency range than you'll ever need. They sound clean and crispy, so you'll have no trouble getting leads to cut through the mix, but they're not so superhuman as to sound too perfect. You get a real sense of the minilogue's key strengths by messing with the Shape parameter accompanying each oscillator. Turning this knob gives you access to a huge spectrum of harmonics. You'll hear sub octaves emerging alongside higher partials that sizzle and shimmer, allowing you to add character specific to the sound you're working on. Say you want to beef up a pad or add some subtle inharmonic overtones to a lead, just turn the Shape knob to taste. Adding another oscillator to the mix multiples the possibilities exponentially; you can sit on a chord, move the Shape controls and listen to the complex interactions dance around the frequency spectrum. Coupled with the oscilloscope, which gives you a direct visual representation of what you're doing sonically, these simple controls are a great way to realise that a huge range of sounds are available from very limited means. Sound design isn't necessarily about complex modulations: subtle alterations within simple waveforms hold a wealth of possibilities.
It also bears mentioning that the second oscillator has options for sync, ring and cross modulation, as well as a pitch envelope that can be set using the minilogue's second envelope generator. Ring and cross mod are perfect for creating metallic hat sounds with the oscillators pitched way up, and there's a whole set of glassy bell tones waiting to be explored. The oscillator mix section, which also contains a noise generator, shouldn't be overlooked here—the relative volume of the oscillators can directly affect the character of the modulation taking place. The filter is switchable between two- and four-pole slopes and is more than capable of making serviceable tom and snare sounds, but in sub territory it can really shine. There's also key tracking so you can effectively pitch the filter with the keyboard, which makes playing bouncy jungle basslines by hand a cinch.
The envelopes and LFO are fairly standard, but for the price and size of the minilogue that's nothing to complain about. The LFO can self-oscillate, which can be very interesting when modulating the Shape setting—complex fizzing and spitting ensues—and you can use the second envelope generator to modulate the LFO, filter and pitch. Using all of these destinations simultaneously means tweaking the envelope settings can cause a chain reaction that ripples out over many parameters.
Speaking of chain reactions, the minilogue's 16-step sequencer is capable of pretty serious sound sculpting, apart from being a highly serviceable means of jamming out parts on the fly. As Sonic State pointed out in a recent video, it can be used as a modulation source capable of shaping four parameters at once. Combined with motion tracking, this means you can build evolving, multilayered sounds extremely quickly by hand. Simply twiddle knobs for variation while the sequencer is running in record mode, and the minilogue will log those changes. This function will make sounds seem more "alive" than any analogue witchcraft ever could. Even extremely simple things, like modulating the attack and decay of a 16th note white noise pattern, will instantly make for a hi-hat sound that holds your attention. There's a delay circuit which is as noisy and crunchy as it is fun. Altering the time value can give you some nice pitch modulation that sounds different than it would done the same way with a more traditional source, like an LFO.
The sequencer buttons also double as Voice Mode selectors, each of which group the synth's voices in different ways in order to excel at particular tasks. For instance, Unison gives you grinding EDM-ready leads, Mono is great for bass sounds and Arp does what it says on the tin. You'll find extra features for each of these modes by turning the Voice Mode Depth control, which will give your Mono voice a sub-oscillator or change the tonality of a chord in Chord mode, to give just two examples. And of course, this parameter is motion-mappable, so you can dial in super complex harmonic changes in Chord mode or change the direction of a scale in Arp mode.
It's clear the minilogue has albums' worth of sounds waiting to be coaxed out. What's more, it's so easy to manipulate that it's hard to keep your hands off the dials when you're recording takes. The minilogue begs for your interaction, and as such, it's an instrument that can reflect your personality with ease. There's not much more you could ask for from a synth at this price point.