Korg Volca Bass by thermal
Korg Volca Bass
Analogue monosynth with 3 oscillators, vintage filter and step sequencer
Price: $170 new, less than $100 used
Many producers work exclusively with software instruments. I have been there, selling all my hardware to finance a powerful computer back in 2005. The idea was to do everything ITB («in the box»). However, I soon missed my hardware synths and samplers. Not only was there a difference in sound – I didn’t feel like I was using instruments anymore. It was all mouse clicks and too open-ended. Software samplers were uninspiring and the synths were lifeless.
Today, software instruments have come a long way in terms of sound. There are many superb softsynths out there, and I use the softsampler Geist on every tune I make. Still, there really is something to be said for having dedicated instruments with limited functionality and their own unique tactile (or in some cases, less than tactile) interfaces. Personally I have always been more creative with hardware, and I also prefer the sonics resulting from voltages passing through physical circuits. Even outputting a software synth to a cheap analogue mixer for some colouration can work wonders.
The Korg Volca series is a great line of products for getting a taste of the hardware sound for very little money. I dig them all, but for this review I will focus on the Volca Bass, which I have owned for about a year.
The Bass sports a hefty three analogue oscillators, a 12 dB/oct resonant lowpass filter based on the Mini Korg 700S from the mid-1970’s, a simple envelope, a MIDI syncable LFO which can reach audio rate speeds and a 16-step sequencer. Oh, and it has a built-in speaker and can run on six AA batteries! In my opinion this is an impressive feature set for the money, and that’s without taking into account how the thing actually sounds.
So how how does it sound? Potentially fantastic, depending on what kind of sound you want. The Bass resembles a Roland TB-303 for a reason, and with a sprinkling of glide (portamento) and slides it can do some great, rubbery acid lines although the sequencer is missing the Accent feature critical for authentic 303 riffs. That’s okay, because this VHS-sized piece of naughty is much more than a 303. At higher resonance levels the filter approximates self-oscillation and starts distorting in a way reminiscent of the rude Korg MS-10/MS-20 lowpass filter. Unlike a typical Moog filter, for instance, the 700S filter becomes bassier rather than thinner when you crank the resonance.
Like a 303, your choice of oscillator waveforms is limited to saw and square, but where the TB has a single oscillator, the Bass has three of them! The square oscillator is unfortunately a bit weak, in my opinion. Useful to have, but my Novation Bass Station 2 and the Arturia Microbrute have much weightier square waves. The saw, on the other hand, is fat and buzzy. A perfect match for that filter.
You want two saw waves detuned against each other with a square wave an octave below? No problem. How about sequencing the three oscillators independently? You can do that too, although only when using the synth’s internal sequencer. It is a missed opportunity that you can’t trigger the oscillators individually from an external controller, but still a cool option to have. Note that each note shares the same filter, LFO and envelope. I do not view this as a con; paraphony gives you interesting sounds that a «proper» polysynth usually cannot. This Volca is first and foremost a monosynth, however, and I love it for chunky bass stabs, single-oscillator arpeggios and sweet soft leads.
As implied, don’t let the name of this synth get you thinking that it only does bass. The oscillators can be tuned high up into lead territory, and you can get some excellent, smooth leads out of it. FX are also within reach as the wide-range LFO can be routed to pitch, filter cutoff and amplitude (simultaneously, if you so desire, but without individual modulation depth). The envelope is very basic, but it’s quite snappy and can be configured as AD or AHR, and you can choose whether to have it control the amplitude in addition to the filter cutoff, or just let the amplifier work in gate (on/off) mode.
The sequencer also has a few tricks up its sleeve, particularly adjustable sequence length and switching on or off active steps. You can input slides à la 303 and it all syncs to MIDI clock or your other Volcas using analogue pulse clock. I assume the latter can be made to work with modular synths as well. There are only eight memory slots for sequences, but you make it work. Or not - personally I tend to sequence the synth from my DAW. I am giving the Bass a "4" for ease of use because making sequences is a bit quirky. For instance, there is no click to let you know where the beats of the sequence are when you are recording in real time. On the other hand, this is sort of charming as it can lead to happy accidents.
The onboard keyboard is quite usable for entering simple melodies, but you need an external controller if you want the Bass to react to note velocity (i.e. how hard you hit the notes on your keyboard). Certain parameters like filter envelope depth and LFO rate can be controlled externally using MIDI, but strangely not the filter cutoff parameter. Please note there is no MIDI out on this unit, so you can’t tweak its own knobs to have your DAW record MIDI automation. This doesn’t really bug me; after all, part of the charm of hardware is recording performances of knob-twiddling as audio, forcing you to commit.
In summary, the Volca Bass is a killer little synth which represents huge bang for the buck. It has a lot of personality, and while it’s far from being a one-stop shop for synth sounds, its low price and excellent sound makes it a great buy both for someone who is curious about the oft-discussed «hardware sound» and someone who already owns hardware synths, but has an open spot for a 3-osc analogue monosynth with bucketloads of character. Highly recommended.
Here's a recording I did, just winging it and making various types of sounds:
Volca Bass by Thermal (3ml) | Free Listening on SoundCloud