KORG MONOTRON — AudioTechnology
Korg has a history when it comes to analogue synthesis. Some of that legacy has now been crammed into a handheld box.
Review: Brad Watts
These little monsters have been kicking about for a while now, but I’ve only just managed to get my mitts on one. It seems the stock disappears as quickly as it arrives in the country, and I can see why. The Korg Monotron is a fabulously neat bit of synth kit. Many will no doubt pass the Monotron off as an insignificant toy, and sure, it does look like one, but there’s absolutely no reason why this mini analogue synth can’t stand on its own as a bonafide electronic instrument. I’ll admit, when I first looked at these units online I was skeptical, but now that I have one in my hot little hands I’m happy to concede the Monotron is a whole bunch of fun. So now you’re aware of my position on this teeny-weeny synth, let’s have look at it.
PUT IT IN YOUR POCKET
It’s small – about the size of a mobile phone, perhaps slightly larger. Okay, about the size of an iPhone in a hard case – a fit-it-in-your hand kind of doo-dad. The entirely plastic unit runs on two AAA batteries – which Korg supplies – and which provide about eight hours of use. The rear panel has a headphone/line output, an input for routing audio through the filter – both are minijacks – and a volume control wheel, much like you’d find on an old ‘transistor’ radio. There’s an additional potentiometer accessible with a small philips-head screwdriver, which adjusts the ribbon controller’s range. Audio is also delivered via a built-in speaker, so you needn’t be tethered to any ‘outboard’ amplification.
Across the top panel are five pots and a three-position power switch. The switch slides from standby (off) and on through two modes of operation for the ribbon (keyboard) controller. The first offers pitch modulation via the LFO, the second position provides modulation of the filter cut-off via the LFO. The five mini potentiometers provide control over pitch, LFO rate (backlit so it pulsates according to the LFO rate), intensity of the LFO, filter cut-off, and a rather aggressive resonance control (labelled ‘peak’). Winding ‘peak’ up to its maximum puts the little tyke into complete squeal mode.
The only oscillator available is a saw wave, as is the shape of the LFO modulation envelope (albeit an inverted saw). The LFO oscillates between excruciatingly slow through to hummingbird fast, so there’s a stack of effects you can glean from this right down to electro kick drums with four-on-the-floor repetition. Sure the controls and modulation options are quite limited, still, the array of tones you can squeeze out of the Monotron is surprising. Combined with the continuously variable ribbon controller – i.e. the pitch being continuous, with the printed keyboard acting as a guide – it’s remarkable how expressive the Monotron can be. In fact, one clever modulation method that turned up in another review noted you could hold the Monotron to your face with the speaker pointing into your mouth, then waggle your mouth cavity around the speaker – jaw harp style. You’d have to mic it up of course. Incidentally, if you find your fingers are too big for the ribbon controller, you can use a stylus of some description on the faux keyboard. Even a pen with the nib retracted will do the trick.
Now while the Monotron sounds fairly undernourished via the internal speaker, plugging it into some decent sound reinforcement lets this little mono synth truly shine. You see, this is a real analogue synthesiser, with a real voltage controlled oscillator and filter. Korg claims the filter is the same design as the legendary Korg MS-10 and MS-20 units released back in 1978. The MS style analogue filters were a force to be reckoned with back then, and if you’re after that same smooth and emotive filtering, the Monotron will certainly provide.
Like I’ve mentioned, many people will write off the Monotron as a plaything, which is admittedly very easy to do given the plastic housing, the tinny speaker, the ‘keyboard’ printing on the ribbon controller and indeed, the Monotron’s diminutive size. It gives the impression of being the 21st century version of Rolf Harris’s Stylophone (a brilliant little ribbon controlled instrument darting from the late ’60s). But even the one-trick Stylophone made it into David Bowie’s Space Oddity and Kraftwerk’s Pocket Calculator. The bottom line is: the Monotron is a lot of fun, and well worth the paltry asking price, even if your only ever use it to filter external material through.