Korg Volca Sample

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Korg’s Volcas are cheap, cheerful and known as a source of mainly analogue voices, digitally assisted where necessary. The Volca Sample is new, fully digital and proud, yet it slots seamlessly into a family that is as comprehensive as it is modestly proportioned.

Lacking that all-important ‘r’, the Volca Sample is not a sampler but a sample player. Up to 100 samples can be imported, provided you have access to an iPhone or iPad. Instead of supplying a Mac or PC editor as you might expect, Korg have made a Software Development Kit available. Presumably the hope is that eager users will get stuck in and produce alternate front ends for everyone. It’s too early to report on the success of this approach, but fortunately, other than the loading process, the Volca Sample promises to be every bit as straightforward and intuitive as its siblings.

When scrabbling around a darkened stage or studio, the Volca Sample’s white plastic shell should make it the quickest Volca to locate. However, it’s in serious need of a makeover. In particular, the dreary combination of black text on grey background will test even the keenest eyesight in low light. The 16 step keys are almost completely anonymous too, despite being vital for almost all operations. At any moment, these multi-touch keys might be asked to trigger samples, mute or solo tracks, program the sequencer or select patterns and songs.

Rarely has this much music technology been so thoroughly miniaturised, as evidenced by the plethora of LEDs and tiny knobs. The majority of the latter are clear plastic stubs, illuminated from beneath by LEDs that flash when the knobs are touched, or when the pattern is replaying parameter automation. Continuing with the theme of informative visuals, a four-character display shows the precise value of every edit and provides an ongoing reminder of the current mode.

Two knobs, Bass and Treble, stand proud of the rest. These form the grandly titled Analogue Isolator, an instantly accessible EQ offering up to 6dB of bass and treble boost, or aggressive cuts when required. In a busy or chaotic mix, this simple functionality can be a lifesaver.

At just 193 x 115 x 45 mm, the Volca Sample is truly portable and can be powered by six AA batteries or an optional 9V adapter. Battery life is promised at up to 10 hours using alkaline batteries and I confess that when the ‘Battery Low’ message did pop up, it caught me on the hop, but not so much as the Volca’s abrupt power-off seconds later. I then noticed there’s a Global option to disable automatic power-offs, but opted to dig out a suitable power supply instead.

Transport and other operations fall to squishy but responsive rubber keys, while a row of knobs offer unencumbered access to tempo, swing, reverb mix and main volume. As usual a single speaker squeaks its impression of the output, although this is light years from the full steroidal majesty of a bass-boosted Volca Sample through studio monitors.

Regarding sync, there’s no break in Volca tradition. This means you can lock to incoming clock sourced from MIDI or the analogue input. Two 3.5mm sockets provide analogue I/O suitable to network a whole nest of Volcas. If operated stand-alone, tempo is displayed numerically and by an LED that pulses beneath the knob. A Global option can restrict the tempo choices to a ‘normal’ spread of 56 to 240 bpm, with the full range of 10 to 600 bpm available to the more adventurous.

The AudioPocket app offers basic sample recording and editing.I’m afraid it’s a mini headphone socket for audio once again, but the good news is that each of the 10 voices can be freely positioned in the stereo field, a clear sign of progress. The output is subject to a low-level background noise, but fortunately it’s not intrusive. With its 32kHz sampling frequency, the Volca Sample is never going to be rated ‘pristine’, but what it lacks in high fidelity it more than makes up for in character. Of all the Volcas so far, this one has the most attitude and already it was answering questions I hadn’t even begun to ask, including that old chestnut about whether size matters.

Samples are arranged into parts, 10 per pattern, of which eight can play simultaneously. The last pair are ‘choke’ parts, intended for hi-hats, congas or other instances where one voice should naturally exclude another. In performance, parts can be muted or soloed, although soloing has the rather unfortunate side-effect of unmuting other parts on exit. This is the case whether or not they were muted prior to the solo action.

The Func key, as SOS readers will expect, switches the regular functionality of buttons and step keys so they contribute more. For example, when combined with step keys, Func provides a consistent method of selecting parts. Other methods are available depending on mode, and in Live Play mode a part is selected (and triggered) merely by hitting its key.

However you perform the part selection, there’s a 4x3 matrix of parameters laid out to transform the sample — often way beyond recognition. Due to the controls’ close proximity, a fairly sober finger-and-thumb pinch is required to avoid unwanted changes. You’ll also notice that one control in the matrix is opaque. This is ‘sample select’ and the lack of an underlying LED indicates it’s the one parameter that can’t be Motion Sequenced.

Motion Sequencing is Korg’s established mechanism for capturing edits into a pattern, and very effective it is. The manual suggests a further refinement in which edits can be applied on a per-step basis, inviting comparisons with Elektron’s ‘parameter locks’. However, despite following the instructions (and querying my understanding with Korg), at the time of writing I have yet to confirm this works.

Loading samples requires iTunes File Sharing.After a brief bout of editing, I was inspired to wonder ‘where are all the knobby samplers?’ because, with the tiniest of strokes, any sample can be a dull thump one moment, a shrill plink the next. For each of the 10 available parts you can vary the sample’s playback speed, level and pan, plus the start point and length. This degree of control is central to the Volca Sample’s appeal and from typical source material you can extract a bewildering catalogue of new tones. Unsurprisingly, slowing down the playback speed also lowers the pitch and, although the maximum transposition is not stated, I’d estimate it at more than four octaves in either direction. Approaching the limits, samples become gnarly and barely recognisable.

Understandably, the artifacts of slow playback are often unwelcome and, with this in mind, each part’s top end can be progressively shaved and sanitised with the ‘Hi Cut’ knob. Basic pitch modulation is provided too, courtesy of a two-stage envelope and corresponding bipolar amount. With these three knobs you can introduce dramatic pitch drops to bass drums or other percussion, or generate an endless supply of sound effects. A second attack/decay envelope is provided to shape the output.

Of all the features Korg have included, the reverb is probably the least expected. It sounds good — in a distinctive ‘muddy metal tank’ way — and is available to any number of parts simultaneously. Turning the mix knob fully clockwise results in a reverb-only signal that’s straight out of Forbidden Planet.

Continuing the theme of freakiness, no sample player should be without a reverse function. How else would you render speech into satanic gibberish or turn hits into rises? There isn’t much else to say about this except to point out that reverse is available to each part independently.

Last but definitely not least, any sample can be looped. I admit I failed to spot the significance of this until I tried it out and discovered its delay-like qualities, with repeats fading into the sunset like the closing paragraph of a Mills & Boon. With looping active, the sample length and envelope controls set the repeat time and number of decays. Depending on the sample selected, this can produce drones, delay-like cascades or, with very short sample lengths, near-granular pitched howls.