Thursday, August 5, 2010

Review: Korg Monotron

Product: Korg Monotron
Type: Miniature Ribbon-controller Analog Synthesizer
Price: $99 (suggested price), $59.99 average actual retailer price

It's easy to become cynical about the big synth manufacturers these days. While there is an abundance of gear out there, it's sometimes hard to avoid the feeling that these companies are just repackaging the same tired Virtual Analogs and ROMplers in an attempt to appeal to as wide and bland an audience as possible. But every now and then, they surprise you. Case in point: the Korg Monotron. Out of nowhere, Korg announced they were releasing an ACTUAL analog synth, and one that could fit in your back pocket, no less. So is it a good surprise? Read on...

Before you understand what the Monotron is, it might be helpful to understand what it isn't. If you're looking for an analog monosynth to pump out fat basslines and leads, the Monotron is not what you want. If you want something you can layer with your other synths or drive from a sequencer via MIDI, you're out of luck. If you want something predictable and safe that sounds polite, keep on walking. It's also not an incredibly deep, feature-laden synth that is going to replace your modular any time soon, although it is surprisingly flexible. But more on that in a bit.

The Monotron is a tiny, handheld analog synth that celebrates the weirder, more unpredictable side of analog. Sure, you can program basic tonal sounds to play melodies, but the ribbon controller isn't like a true keyboard where pressing a note outputs a single, steady, predictable tone. The exact tone can vary depending where on the "key" you press and even if you're a master with a stylus (Brett Domino, I'm looking in your direction), playing melodies like you would on a normal synth is not something that comes easy.

Where the Monotron truly excels is in making insane, unpredictable, weird FX type sounds. There is a "mad scientist" quality to the sounds this little beast produces that remind one of 50's b-movies, or the retro soundscapes that were the trademark of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop back in the 60's. Indeed, playing with the Monotron feels less like playing an instrument, and more like a living, breathing, barely-in-control creature.

The first thing you are bound to notice about the Monotron is how shockingly small it is. Even if, like myself, you've watched the numerous YouTube videos circulating the net, you're still likely to be surprised at just how tiny it is "in person". The closest comparison I can make is that it's about the same size as an iPhone, but thicker. This means the ribbon keyboard is really tiny. So tiny, in fact, that you'll probably want to play it with a stylus of some sort (not included).

The unit itself is powered by 2 AAA batteries. There is no option to power it with a cord, but I can't imagine that being problematic for most people. The rear panel features an 1/8" summed stereo input (for processing external sounds through the filter), an 1/8" headphone jack that can also be used as a standard output, and a small dial to act as a volume control. A recessed screw allows you to tweak the range of the ribbon keyboard if you so desire.

On the front panel itself you'll find a combination power and mod assignment switch. In the 'standby' position, the unit powers off. The PITCH and CUTOFF power the unit on and the positions select either of those two parameters as the modulation destination for the LFO.

Next to this is a PITCH knob, allowing you to set the basic range controlled by the ribbon keyboard. The oscillator only outputs one waveform (a sawtooth), and, as you'd expect from the synth's name, it is monophonic.

Next door to this you'll find the LFO section which consists of a clear RATE knob which pulses red in time with the speed of the LFO, and the INTensity knob which sets the amount of modulation the LFO provides to either the PITCH or filter CUTOFF, depending on which you've assigned as the mod destination. If you don't want any modulation at all, you can simply turn the INT knob all the way down. The LFO has an extremely wide range and can get up into audio range, opening up the possibility for FM/ring mod type timbres. There is only one wave shape available for the LFO which is a descending sawtooth.

Finally, you'll find the voltage controlled filter section with the standard CUTOFF and resonance controls (here marked PEAK). And what a filter it is! As you've no doubt heard by now, the Monotron features the same lowpass filter as their classic 70's synth, the MS-20. This isn't a simulation built with fancy DSP and coding, this is the real deal and it sounds amazing. If you've ever played an MS-20 (or even played with Korg's software simulation), you know that it has an extremely unique sound to it. It's undeniably analog sounding, but more importantly, it has an amazing, aggressive screeching quality when pushed to extremes that stands it apart from other classic filter designs instantly. In addition to being useful for sculpting sounds on the Monotron itself, it can also be used to process external audio via the AUX input. So in reality, this isn't just a synth, but is also a great filter box for mangling anything you feed through it.

Above the filter controls is the internal speaker. This is fine for use at home, but even at the highest range, it's not terribly loud, so you'll probably want to use the proper output to feed it into your mixer or soundcard. Obviously, 1/8" jacks are not going to give you the ultimate in fidelity, and there is some noise from the output, but to me, that's part of the charm. I'm not sure an instrument like this should be hi-fi.

If I was forced to cut this review down to a single word, it would be: FUN. This thing is a total blast to mess around with. What surprised me the most is just how much you can vary the sound with so few controls. I think this really captures part of what makes true analog instruments so appealing to many of us. Even a small tweak can often take the sound in an entirely different direction, especially when you're modulating the pitch or filter in the audio range. Real time tweaking (and this thing BEGS for that sort of thing) only opens up more possibilities. As I said before, you're not going to get "typical", melodic synth sounds out of this as easily as you are crazy, barely-in-control squawks, bleeps, sweeps, and other sci-fi ear fodder.

Whether or not the Monotron is for you really depends on your expectations. I've already outlined what it does best and if that sounds appealing to you, I can recommend you just place your order and get one now. You'll have an amazing amount of fun with this thing. If you're looking for a budget MS-20 to blast out some wall shaking basslines or other melodic bits, you're probably going to be disappointed.

The Monotron really inhabits a sort of limbo in between "toy" and "serious instrument". The size and build quality (it feels well put together, but the light plastic casing feels like it would probably not tolerate being dropped very well) may mislead you into thinking this is just a novelty. Once you spend some time playing around with it, though, you begin to realize this really is a legitimate, if somewhat limited instrument. The ability to process external audio through the amazing filter only sweetens the deal (seriously, how many analog filter boxes can you pick up for this price, let alone one that also happens to be a synth?)

For me, the most intriguing thing about the Monotron is the possibility that it's testing the waters for other, perhaps more full-featured analog synths, whether from Korg, or any of the other big manufacturers. Certainly this product has made huge waves in the market already, and the fact that retailers can barely keep them in stock bodes well for this possibility. Even if it is a one-off product, however, it's well worth picking up. That is, if you can find one. [9/10]

(Curious what it sounds like in action? Stay tuned tomorrow for a very special Free Sample Friday...)


Umcorps said...

The audio input is actually a stereo jack summed to mono so, if you use a splitter cable, you can process two mono sources simultaneously.

Twice the fun.

[Gerald] said...

The German music portal Bonedo has published a video tutorial how to integrate a CV/gate interface into the Monotron. Even though I would prefer a MIDI interface it is still quite interesting.

The article and the video are in German, but as far as I have seen, Google translation does a pretty good job here ;-)

Tom said...

Umcorps, thanks for the heads up, I missed that little detail. Corrected it in the review.

Bram Bos said...

Great review! It seems you like your Monotron as much as I do!

If you enjoy jamming with it, you may like the freeware app I've made to enhance the Monotron's sonic capabilities: Monostudio. It adds some tempo-sync digital effects and a classic drumcomputer (inspired by the Korg Minipops).

Find it here: