KORG MINILOGUE Polyphonic Analogue Synth

Published On May 3, 2016 | Reviews

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Korg’s Minilogue packs a lot of analogue punch in a small package. Even its miniature OLED display does more than you’d think.

Review: Jason Hearn

Picking up the Minilogue box, I was afraid it might be missing something… like an analogue synth. The ones in my rack are typically more of a workout, but the Minilogue is surprisingly light.

However, cruising through the factory presets showed it’s a sonic heavyweight. Presets covered the gamut of searing leads, sumptuous pads, wobbly poly-key patches, relentless punchy bass sounds and even some inventive percussive sequence patches. It could be perfect for the Uber-riding musician wanting to jam a real four-voice, polyphonic analogue synth in their backpack.

VOICE A LA MODE

The Minilogue has eight voice modes and a Depth control that adds functions specific to each mode. Poly mode gives four-voice polyphony with the Depth control inverting chords in varying degrees. In Duo mode, you get two-voice polyphony with pairs of voices stacked and detunable by up to 50 cents. For those seeking ultra-fat basses and leads, Unison mode is truly monstrous, stacking all voices with up to 50 cents of detuning. You can access additional sub-oscillators in Mono mode via the Depth control. Chord mode stacks the voices in various chord types selected via the Depth control. Think instant, one-finger Detroit techno chords stabs. Delay mode provides a note repeat delay effect that reminds me of the note chase function of my Roland D5.

Unusually, the arpeggiator has been implemented as a separate voice mode. Arpeggiators are typically independent of voice allocation, allowing the sound character to remain consistent regardless of whether or not it’s engaged. If you’ve just rustled up a detuned bassline patch in Unison mode and wish to arpeggiate it, engaging Arp mode will lose that wonderful detuning. DAW MIDI arpeggiation means it won’t be a showstopper, but it’s an issue to consider for the laptop-free live band member. On the plus side, beyond the typical Up/Down/Up & Down variations, there are two Poly modes providing polyphonic chord triggering in addition to a few random modes. If you find yourself searching for a latch mode, oddly, it is missing.

Last of the modes — unique to Minilogue — is the Sidechain mode, which is best explained by example. Let’s say you’re holding down a three-note chord with your right hand, triggering a fourth note in the bass register ducks the volume of the chord by the amount selected on the Depth control.

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  1. LEVERAGING PERFORMANCE — Eschewing the traditional Pitch and Modulation wheels, the primary (and only) performance control is a diagonally oriented performance lever. While it provides a unique look in use it has substantial mechanical noise, a fair degree of lateral play and feels a touch too heavily spring loaded, being particularly resistant toward the extremes.
  2. NOTABLE KNOBS — The slightly-rubberised finish on the knobs feels fantastic, and any wobble is avoided by their chassis mounting. There’s also plenty of space for chubby-fingered tweakers. Many controls have a precise 1024 steps of resolution, which is substantially higher than many legendary vintage synths. The resolution is essential for accurate recall of patch memories and to avoid stepping when swept. The largest knob controls VCF Cutoff, and will last the distance even in the roughest of tweaker’s hands. Retro flip-switches are reminiscent of your old, hi-fi tape deck — the ones that probably still work. In short, the controls on this synth feel professional.

  3. ONBOARD OSCILLOSCOPE — The high-resolution OLED oscilloscope display, albeit small, is legible at a wide range of viewing angles. It displays the output of the last voice triggered and is fascinating to watch. Far from a gimmick, for sound design beginners to seasoned synth heads exploring the architecture, its value can’t be underestimated. It lends the whole process a scientific bent, giving a visual result of your sound design ‘experiments’.

  4. MAX MINI-KEY — Minilogue has the same scaled-down keybed found on Korg’s recent MS20 Mini and ARP Odyssey. As a kid, as well as tinkling ivories I was simultaneously playing the minikeys of a Casio CZ101. For me, adapting to non-full-sized keys has never been problematic. Since it is a poly synth, I’d rather three octaves of minikeys, in preference to two octaves of full-sized keys. Though it has a satisfying velocity response, the keyboard lacks aftertouch and, unusually, any opportunity to modulate elements of the synth engine via aftertouch events incoming via MIDI.

MANUAL DRIVING

Minilogue passes any user-friendliness tests with flying colours; no ‘manual diving’ required. The only part I found counter-intuitive was for functions where you’d normally be looking for a ‘Yes’ or ‘Execute’ button. Instead, rotate the Value encoder one step upward and the display prompts ‘Press Write’ to proceed. Dedicated Yes/No buttons would have been easier. Also, some common ‘broad-stroke’ synth parameters, such as the portamento rate, are menu items rather than dedicated panel controls. Curiously, others better reserved for a menu setting — for example, Velocity setting in the VCF — have panel controls.

On the whole, considering its diminutive size, Korg has excelled at finding the right balance of hands-on control versus price. Even the typically cumbersome act of naming a patch without QWERTY keys is rapid and implemented sensibly.

ANATOMY OF A VOICE

Minilogue’s voice architecture comprises dual VCOs, each offering saw, triangle and square waves with a waveshaping control specific to each. The Square wave waveshaper varies the duty cycle of the waveform which, combined with the LFO, provides pulse width modulation. With Triangle and Sawtooth waveforms engaged, additional harmonics are progressively introduced.

Both VCOs have four selectable octave pitch settings as well as fine control over two octaves in one-cent increments (±1200 cents). The VCO section also features oscillator cross modulation, hard sync and ring modulation which can be engaged in any combination. Vital for tonal interest, VCO2 can be modulated by the second envelope in tandem with cross modulation, sync and ring modulation. Still, it does feel like an opportunity was missed to create thick complicated sounds at the VCO level. The (single) LFO can only simultaneously modulate the wave shaping for both VCOs by the same amount. Independent modulation amounts would have been ideal!

Before hitting the VCF stage, the signal flow enters a mixer providing a means for balancing VCO1, VCO2 and a noise generator. The VCF low-pass filter sports two- or four-pole flavours that have a sweet and clean sound. Self-oscillation is easily introduced with the resonance set above 70%. The VCF modulation controls include the amount and polarity of the second envelope, and hard stop settings for key-track and velocity response. While the filter’s wide range produces plenty of textures, I did hanker for the added thickness of a drive stage.

Post-VCF, the signal enters a digital delay circuit with an auxiliary high-pass filter. While tweaking the rate in real-time invokes wild pitch modulations that get caught in the feedback circuit, I found the available delay rates a little short. With higher feedback settings, there was a definite onset of rising background noise. I found myself mostly using it to subtly add weight to sounds. Re-routing the integrated high-pass filter was very useful for shelving subsonics and even providing band-pass filtering in conjunction with the VCF.

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OLD BUT NEW LOOK — Korg blends modern chic and retro glory in Minilogue’s gracefully-curved, sandblasted aluminium front panel, generous serve of solid, slightly-rubberised pots, cheeky wooden back panel and gig-worthy high impact plastic chassis. Those eye-piercing blue LEDs are completely absent. Korg opted for a gentle scheme of red indicators and backlighting, instead.

MONO BLOCK — While Minilogue has four voices, the output is mono only. Personally, this has never been a roadblock to enjoyment of other mono-output synths in my collection, and I actually prefer it in the studio. Others may not feel the same way.

MODULATION MATRIX

In common with many modern analogue synths, while the VCO, VCF and VCA are truly analogue, the LFO and Envelope generators are generated digitally. While tweaking Minilogue, particularly with low VCF settings, I could occasionally hear clicking artefacts. Initially I dismissed it as a by-product of voice-stealing when playing parts too complex for four voices, but it was also happening with some mono synth patches. Thankfully, a firmware update laid the issue to rest. Apparently the designer had to strike a balance between the fun of fast envelope stages and reducing this subsequent artefact. Minilogue’s envelopes are still lightning fast, making it a great candidate for sharp basses, up-front leads and synth percussion.

Although Minilogue has the sound of a heavyweight, it’s light on in the modulation matrix department. It only has a single LFO, a dedicated VCA envelope and a second assignable envelope. What you see on the front panel is what you get, there are no modulation surprises nestled within the menus. The only modulation matrix possibility I haven’t covered is the three different destinations offered by the LFO: VCO pitch, VCF cutoff and the VCO wave shape. The LFO has three basic shapes with no sample-and-hold (noise) function; however, it can either be free-running or synced to MIDI clock.

The exception is the performance lever, which can be linked to 29 destinations (found within the menus). Only a single destination can be selected at a time, excluding it from patch morph tricks achieved by ganging multiple parameters. There’s also no means of specifying a modulation range or polarity.

It’s not as deep as a sound designer might hope for, but considering the physical circuit paths required to interact with VCO/VCF/VCA on an analogue synth, those limitations are to be expected at this price.

IN THE RIGHT SEQUENCE

Where Minilogue shines as an inspiration and jamming tool is in its Note and Motion sequencing. Rather than utilising a shared pool of sequences, Korg has wisely opted to store sequence data local to each patch.

With MIDI clock running from your DAW, you can immediately start sequencing notes on the fly by pressing Minilogue’s REC button and they will play back quantised and looped. Motion sequencing any four parameters is equally accessible.

You can edit Note and Motion data like Step Length, which changes pattern lengths from the 16-step default to non-binary lengths for polyrhythmic experimentation. Step Resolution can be changed from 1/16th to longer note divisions, extending the maximum possible length beyond a single bar. Note and Motion data can be cleared independently, and Motion data tracks can be individually enabled or disabled — great for performance!

I prefer to consider the Motion sequence tracks as four tempo-clocked envelopes or LFOs and therefore a means of overcoming the modulation matrix limitations. Motion sequencing any parameter tied to a front panel control opens this synth up to rich, rhythmically animated sounds.

After getting a great riff into the step sequencer, the natural instinct will be to play single notes on the keyboard to transpose the riff on the fly and follow chord changes. Unusually, it’s not possible, limiting the usefulness of this Minilogue hero-function.

My only other odd Minilogue moment was when integrating an external MIDI controller keyboard. The controller’s mod wheel was mapped to the noise amount! Even weirder, the sustain pedal affected the octave of VCO1. It appears the MIDI rulebook on the standards for continuous controller assignments was misplaced!

MINI WINNER

While its presentation is excellent, build quality luxurious and sound quality superb, Minilogue’s modulation matrix doesn’t offer the depth to make it a go-to instrument for exotic sounds. However, with inventive use of the Motion sequencing function you can fake more modulation than what is on offer and push the unit further than you’d expect. All without having to crack the manual — it’s a very intuitive synth.

As a collector of vintage eight-voice poly synths like the Oberheim Matrix 1000/6R and Roland MKS80, I crave the sound of playing complex analogue poly parts across two hands without fear of premature voice stealing. With Minilogue, you’ll find yourself limited to simple chords and largely single-handed phrases.

Nevertheless, the Minilogue delivers massive, thick, detuned patches with ease. I found myself gravitating largely toward the Unison, Duo and Mono voice modes. The essential ingredients required to introduce subtle differences between the VCOs and create thick ensemble poly patches are missing. If anything, I found the four-voice Poly mode best for less-weighty sounds, introducing movement through cross modulation and sync.

For the money, there is a lot to like about the Minilogue — polyphonic analogue sound, beautiful build and extensive hands on control. I have no doubt it has all the charm required to win over those looking to acquire their first polyphonic analogue synth.

HEAR MINILOGUE IN ACTION

Listen to sounds generated using Korg’s Minilogue and follow along with Jason as he crafts a nasty bass patch from scratch.

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