KORG MICROKORG XL — AudioTechnology
Korg’s little blighter grows up – but it’s a cutie all the same.
Text: Brad Watts
Korg may not be the biggest synth manufacturer on the planet – that accolade would probably be awarded to the winner of a coin toss between Roland and Yamaha – but Korg is arguably more innovative than its big brothers. Long-term readers of AT will be aware of my affection for Korg gear. Paradoxically, I’ve owned far more Roland and Yamaha synths over the years; the only Korg I’ve ever forked out for being the Poly61 many moons ago. Regardless, I’m constantly blown away by Korg’s lush sounds and relatively avant-garde designs. The M3 reawakened me to Korg’s modus operandi, as did the Analog and Digital Legacy plug-in collections – pretty much the only soft-synths I use these days.
So it was without even the teeniest skerrick of trepidation that I opened the box to the microKorg XL, the successor to the original wooden-cheeked keyboard of the same name. The original microKorg utilised the synthesis engine from the MS2000, and housed identical vocoder capabilities. The unfortunate thing was, the vocoder could only muster eight filter bands, and overall the microKorg looked like something made by Casio in the ’80s (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). It looked a bit shabby to me; the microphone gooseneck in particular, seemingly deriving its aesthetic from a computer parts swap fair. But that didn’t stop the microKorg becoming something of a cult machine – and possibly contributed to the little tyke’s appeal.
The overall aesthetic of the new ‘XL’ model is also definitively retro in its persuasion. The black casing is reminiscent of the old pressed-metal housings of synths like the Roland SH-09 (ironically), complete with a pseudo ripple-effect paint job. The top panel controls are incredibly simple: two large (and again suitably retro-looking knobs) select the patches, while six smaller knobs control volume, arpeggiator tempo, and patch editing or real-time parameter control.
The patch knobs on the XL are actually eight-position switches that arrange sounds into genres with the first knob, and sub-categories on the second. The genre nomenclature includes musical sub-classes such as ‘House/Disco’, ‘Rock/Pop’, and the predictably old-school ‘Jazz/Fusion’ – whatever fusion is… I still don’t know for sure. Some will no doubt deride the use of such tacky categories, but this is no doubt all part of Korg’s retro styling: a humourous attempt to acknowledge the tacky screen-printing of ’70s-era electronic instruments. You know, the drum machines with a Bossanova options like ‘swing’, and ‘foxtrot’…
Doubling these patch locations to a total of 128 is a bank select switch, again reflecting the ’70s era with a silver barrel-style rocker switch. The entire look and feel is undeniably old fashioned – kind of like driving a Chrysler PT Cruiser (the turbo not the standard). What’s also inviting is the miniature 37-note ‘natural’ keyboard. Apparently what Korg means by ‘natural’ is that the keys are like piano keys, only smaller. Check out the photo and you’ll see what I mean. The top panel also houses a dedicated XLR mic input for the spiffy little gooseneck dynamic mic that comes with the microKorg XL – far superior to the dopey little computer mic that came with the original, which I’ll hasten to point out, is not a discontinued model. Inputs and outputs on the new XL remain the same as the microKorg, apart from the XLR mic input (there’s still an unbalanced jack input for line level input) and the XL loses the MIDI thru port.
SUM & DIFFERENCE
So what else sets the XL apart from the original microKorg? Well, the vocoder has been bolstered with double the number of bands to 16. Each of these bands can also be panned (between left and right outputs) for some lovely sounding vocodered pads. This is a vast improvement on the vocoder found in the original microKorg; sounding just like you’d expect a vocoder to sound: full, fruity, and brimming with synthetic largesse. Incidentally, this is the same MMT synthesis engine as found in Korg’s Radias units, so you’d expect there to be some lush vocoder action emanating from this little keyboard. Perhaps the most important piece of news, however, is the microKorg XL’s doubling of polyphony. Up to eight voices are possible (four when using the vocoder), making the XL a genuine contender as a pad machine – something that the original microKorg, and indeed the MS2000 before it, weren’t all that great at. For the die-hard microKorg users this could indeed be the main attraction for upgrading to the newer model. The XL also features a USB port for direct connection to your computer platform of choice, via the free editing software.
As for the obligatory ‘how does it sound’ conclusion? Well, there’s hardly a keyboard player on the planet that would denigrate the sound of a modern Korg instrument. They really do sound great, and the microKorg XL upholds this tradition. It’s a stylish little synth that hasn’t been turned off since it first arrived on AT’s doorstep. It’s had a set of cans permanently plugged into it at the office, with microphone at the ready, for immediate auditory ‘relaxation’. Frankly, it’s been difficult to keep Mark Davie away from the little beast. I’ll wager it’s bound to become more of a classic than its predecessor. A great little instrument, to be sure.